Vera Stremkovskaya

Belarus was formed in 1988 after the fall of the USSR. As a founding member and former president of the Center for Human Rights in Belarus, Vera Stremkovskaya was one of that country’s most respected legal practitioners, known for her willingness to take up the defense of politically unpopular clients. In retaliation, she has been harassed, threatened, and charged with libel. In March 1999, the Collegium of Advocates (the government-controlled bar association) issued a “stern reprimand” to Stremkovskaya because of her outspoken advocacy for human rights, threatening disbarment if she continued her work. The Soviet-style regime maintains strict control over the media, restricts circulation of the independent press (when it is not banned altogether), and controls all broadcast media. Street demonstrators can expect mass arbitrary arrests, beatings, and long prison terms, while plainclothes state security agents carry out threats and kidnappings in the street with total impunity. In the Belarus police state, this courageous woman seeks justice for the few who dare speak out against injustice—Vera Stremkovskaya’s bravery and courage are exemplary. Stremkovskaya currently lives in Sweden with her family.

The Belarussian authorities started a wave of harassment against me. Upon my return from the United States, where I had spoken to different audiences about the human rights situation in Belarus, the authorities tried to revoke my license to practice law. I was told to appear before the chairman of the Supreme Court of Belarus and the deputy minister of justice. I was also told to present myself before the Minsk Regional Committee of Advocates, a professional organization. They argued that criminal defense work and human rights activities were entirely separate, and told me to choose between being a lawyer or being a human rights activist. At every meeting, they threatened to revoke my license to practice law, citing my speeches, meetings in the United States, and human rights activities as inappropriate to the profession. Strong reaction in my defense from foreign countries, notably the U.S. and German embassies, saved my license to practice law. However, the Belarussian authorities still issued a censure.

I received a second censure after an appeal to change a pretrial detention order. After my request that the defendant go free on bail while on trial because he was very old and quite sick, in response, the court actually claimed that my appeal was making the man nervous—that this was the reason for his deteriorating health. Then, they censured me.

The case was against a fellow by the name of Starovoitov. He had transformed a Soviet type of agricultural institution into a new, market-oriented company in which workers were given shares. President Lukashenko rejected these changes and, in order to squelch his activities, falsely charged the man with embezzlement.

When they threatened to revoke my license, I was very upset. If I were to lose my license, I would lose my job and the opportunity to earn a living for myself and my family. This was my profession and I loved it. I was shocked and it was a terrible time for me, but I wanted to continue to defend human rights. Belarussian law implies that the lawyer be a professional human rights defender. Only Belarussian authorities could come up with the idea that these are two separate roles.

In fact, most of my clients are people charged in political cases. They are prisoners of conscience, and feel apologetic for causing me to suffer from the threats and suppression of the government. The most moving moment took place after the trial of Starovoitov. I went to see this old, skinny, gray-haired man and he fell on my shoulder. He put his head against me, cried, and said, “I am so sorry that I have caused so many troubles for you.” Other clients went to meetings with me and would defend me in front of the officials. Their support, along with my own moral convictions, kept me going. Had I decided to forego my obligations, necessary changes in Belarus would not have been possible. Likewise, I understood that I had a personal cross to bear. I felt very strongly that I had been destined to practice law and, therefore, should continue to do so.

In another sense, I see the world as a consistent creation of which I am a part. I know the history of our country well and the developments of different civilizations throughout time. This has been precious, important, and useful knowledge in shaping my view of the world. I am a poet and I love poetry. People who write poetry perceive the world a little bit differently. My view of the world is sensitive and emotional.

I feel an obligation as a member of society. I turn to the Bible and to Jesus Christ and question why he did what he did for human beings, even those who didn’t believe in him. There is a line from a Russian poem, “Go alone and help the blind to face at the moment the repression, the indifference of the crowd and the sarcasm of the crowd.” In my opinion, this is everyone’s obligation. This is the meaning of life for me.

I am a single mother. My parents died and I am bringing up my child alone. We are a family unit. We feel and think the same way and view life in a similar manner. Since I have a lot of friends and my home is a meetinghouse, my son is always meeting creative people. At the same time, he sees how tired I am, when I come home from work. He realizes what I am doing, and, more and more often, asks me very particular questions about my cases.

Life for me is one process. I cannot be one person with my child and another at work. These worlds overlap. My clients often become my friends. They visit my house and my son meets them and sees who they are. He is attracted to this type of person. I think that I am happier than those who work from nine to five and pretend to do something important, when in fact they just exist.

In my opinion, courage comes from doing something despite the difficulty of the circumstances. You do it because you feel it is right, because you should. The feeling of inner strength is like a metal cord inside of you that helps you to go forward. It originates from a vision of the future, from the belief in God, from a consciousness of destiny, and from knowledge of history. Likewise, it comes from the people who surround you, like my friends and my son. In the United States and other countries, people understand and support me. This gives me a great deal of strength.

People in Belarus are no longer afraid. The fear that once gripped them has begun to dissipate, and they have become creative in their protests. These protests may be local and small but are a sign of resistance. One inmate organized a protest against the rats in his cell. Although a prisoner, he defended his dignity and protection of his rights. In another incident, he hung his underwear and dirty clothes out the window so that the people working on the streets could see it. In doing so, he hoped to pressure the warden for more sanitary conditions.

At times these protests are quite funny. An artist by the name of Pushkin put a pile of manure in front of the presidential palace. In it, he placed President Lukashenko’s campaign slogans, along with a sign reading, “Results of your presidency.”

There is also a newly formed presidential youth organization called the Belarussian Patriotic Youth Union. Once, on AIDS Prevention Day, the Democratic Youth Movement formally presented the pro-Lukashenko Presidential Youth Organization activists with dozens of condoms on which the analogous message was written, “So that there will be no more like you.” The idea was to stop the group from spreading.

I am sure that the democratic process in Belarus will prevail. I am sure of it. We don’t have any other choice. Belarus is a European country in the very center of Europe. Just as changes have taken place elsewhere, so they will happen in Belarus. I see our history as part of the development that is happening throughout the world. The history of the world proves that humanity is the whole union of people. We are united in moving toward democracy, toward justice, and toward a more open society. I believe that these democratic changes will take place in Belarus because there is a plethora of smart, industrious people who devote themselves to this cause on a daily basis. With particular regard to elections, there is additional support from the international community. The United States reacted strongly to the elections and Amnesty International continues to condemn the Lukashenko regime for detaining prisoners of conscience. This has helped Belarus to envision itself as a part of the international community. In fact, I had the opportunity to speak to President Clinton in Atlanta at the American Bar Association ceremony for international human rights lawyers where I was given an award. On behalf of the Belarussian people, I expressed my gratitude to the United States and our continued hope for democratic change.