Russia ramps up repression of lawyers before the elections

Russian politics updates

Lawyers who act for those the state deems its enemies cannot expect a comfortable life in any country, but in Russia their persecution has reached a pitch that demands international attention. The FSB — the state security apparatus — is engaging in forms of harassment that prevent them from defending clients charged, often on dubious evidence with “subversive” activities. In an attempt to chill political protest in the lead-up to elections later this month, the FSB has used powers of arrest and prosecution to stop lawyers from doing their duty to defend politically-motivated prosecutions.

Take the attack on the distinguished human rights advocate, Ivan Pavlov. Pavlov led “Team 29” — an informal association of lawyers that took its name, ironically, from Article 29 of the Russian Constitution, which purports to guarantee free speech. Team 29’s latest offence has been to represent Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation in its appeal against its designation as an “extremist” organisation, which in effect closed it down. This summer, Team 29 was forced to disband, after a government accusation that it was associated with an “undesirable foreign organisation” — an accusation that allowed the state to block its website and, potentially, to move against individual team members, clients or supporters.

In April, the authorities moved to prosecute Pavlov himself, having raided his home and office and seized his files and electronic devices. His alleged “crime” had been to release to the media the charge sheet against one of his clients, Ivan Safronov, a former journalist accused of treason for supposedly passing on government information. Pavlov was accused of publishing “confidential information” and his bail conditions prevent him from communicating with anyone by telephone, internet or mail. He has now fled to Georgia.

A number of Russian human rights lawyers courageously joined a protest against the prosecution of Pavlov, describing it as an attempt at “intimidating the legal community and turning it into an obedient and state-controlled organisation.” The forced disbandment of Team 29 emphasises the threat now facing all lawyers in Russia who act for organisations that seek justice for human rights violations and have connections with foreign groups.

Where can they look for support? Not to the Kremlin-controlled parliament, which churns out a web of laws against peaceful oppositionists, and not to the office of President Putin who may, by a recent constitutional amendment, stay in power until 2036. The judges should be their protectors, but Russian judges convict more than 99 per cent of defendants. Law enforcement and security agencies, including the FSB, can punish an acquittal with an investigation and a request to strip the judge of their status. Such requests are almost always granted, by other members of the judiciary. 

The media should rally to their defence, at least by alerting the public to the state conspiracy against human rights lawyers. The government however, has also moved to designate several critical online media outlets and journalists as “foreign agents”, forcing some to close down and putting others on the verge of closure.

A host of independent websites, including those of Navalny, have also been blocked on the grounds that they were being “used for propaganda” by extremist groups. These people are not “extremists” in any sense of the word, but simply critics of Vladimir Putin.

International condemnation may have some effect. The UK last year sanctioned a number of Russian prosecutors and judges responsible for the death in prison of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, but that was back in 2009. What is happening right now is sinister and pressing — the intimidation of a profession for doing its duty to defend freedom of speech at a time when it matters most — the run-up to an election. 

The writer is a QC and author of ‘Bad People and How to Be Rid of Them’  

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