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Russia Attacks Lawyers, the Last Independent Institution

Igor Slabykh

On October 13, 2023, the Kovrov City Court of Vladimir region was supposed to consider one more lawsuit brought by the Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny against the prison authorities. However, the hearing did not occur because Navalny’s lawyer did not appear in court. Later it became known that the Investigative Committee of Russia had arrested three of Navalny’s lawyers at the same time: Vadim Kobzev, Alexey Liptser, and Igor Sergunin.

Within a few days, it became known that two more of Navalny’s legal advisers, Olga Mikhailova and Aleksandr Fedulov, had left Russia to avoid detention.

The investigators opened a criminal case against the first three lawyers for “participation in an extremist organization.” The lawyers’ homes and offices were searched. All three lawyers were arrested and detained pending trial that same day.

Ivan Zhdanov, director of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, a nonprofit organization established in 2011 by Navalny and funded by private donations, published excerpts from the documents in the criminal case. According to the version provided by the prosecutor’s office, under the circumstances—unspecified by the investigation—the lawyers used their roles to gain access to the prison and ensure the regular transfer of information between the leaders and participants in what was dubbed an extremist organization, the Anti-Corruption Foundation. Since Russia does not have grand jury proceedings and the use of a jury is severely limited, criminal cases are easily brought against regime opponents.

The persecution of lawyers for performing professional duties is nothing new in Russia; lawyers were also persecuted in the USSR. Dina Kaminskaya, Sofia Kallistratova, Yuri Pozdeev, and Boris Zolotukhin defended dissidents in the USSR. Their doing so went against the image of a Soviet lawyer and sparked adverse reactions from the government and their colleagues.

Nevertheless, post-Soviet Russia has already overtaken the USSR in the prosecution of human rights defenders. Russia is following the path of modern Belarus, where defense attorneys representing defendants charged with crimes in political cases themselves face criminal charges for providing their professional assistance.

Prosecution of Lawyers in the Post-Soviet Era

During the investigation of criminal cases related to Yukos, the vast energy company acquired by oligarchs (including Mikhail Khodorkovsky) during Russia’s privatization efforts in the 1990s, an action subsequently challenged by Putin, the government unsuccessfully attempted to disbar lawyers of the individuals involved in the cases. Although these attempts failed and did not escalate into criminal prosecution, such actions affected Yukos in-house lawyers Svetlana Bakhmina, Vasily Alexanyan, and Dmitry Gololobov.

Decades after those events, shareholders’ quest for redress in the Yukos case is still ongoing.

The first high-profile prosecution of a lawyer in Russia occurred in 2007 when law enforcement authorities initiated a criminal case against Boris Kuznetsov. Kuznetsov was defending MP Levon Chakhmakhchyan, who was accused of bribery.

During the discovery process, Kuznetsov came across a document from the Federal Security Service regarding wiretapping the senator’s mobile phone. The date on the document indicated that the wiretapping had been conducted unlawfully for a month. Law enforcement agencies considered the inclusion of this document in the complaint submitted to the Constitutional Court of Russia as the disclosure of classified information. After the criminal case against him was initiated, Kuznetsov fled Russia and was granted asylum in the United States.

In late 2020, the Investigative Committee initiated prosecution against Irina Savelieva, who was defending the first deputy mayor of Ulyanovsk, Mikhail Sychov. To prepare the defense, Savelieva provided information about the defendant’s allegedly unlawful transactions to a civil law specialist for evaluation. The Investigative Committee considered this disclosure a breach of the investigation’s confidentiality and initiated a criminal case against the attorney. Notably, law enforcement learned about the attorney’s actions by wiretapping her phone.

In 2022, the court acquitted Savelieva. However, the appellate court overturned the ruling. Upon reexamining the case, the court dismissed it under the the statute of limitations.

In 2021, law enforcement agencies targeted Ivan Pavlov. The lawyer was defending journalist Ivan Safronov in a treason case and helming the human rights group Team 29, which actively worked on issues related to the state secrets regime.

The Investigative Committee accused Pavlov of breach of the investigation's confidentiality, alleging that he had passed the text of Safronov’s charges to journalists. Pavlov’s home and office were searched, and he was arrested. The court released Pavlov but imposed restrictions that prevented him from representing his client. Pavlov announced the termination of his representation of Safronov and left Russia.

Post-Invasion Realities for Russian Human Rights Lawyers

With the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia no longer feels the need to maintain the illusion of being a democratic regime or a state that upholds the rule of law. Consequently, the situation for defense lawyers has deteriorated even further.

In the summer of 2022, Dmitry Talanov, who had also been a lawyer for Safronov, was detained for drawing a comparison on his social media between the actions of Russian troops in Ukraine and the actions of Nazi Germany soldiers. Talanov thus became the second of Safronov’s lawyers to be persecuted by the Russian government.

Vadim Prokhorov, who represented many Russian opposition politicians, was forced to leave Russia as well. During the trial of Vladimir Kara-Murza, who was accused, among other things, of state treason and spreading fake news about the Russian army, both the court and the prosecutor openly threatened the lawyer with disbarment and initiating a criminal case.

In the summer of 2023, unknown assailants severely attacked attorney Aleksandr Nemov and journalist Elena Milashina, who wanted to attend a court hearing on the charges being brought against Zarema Musaeva in Chechnya. Hardly anyone doubts that the local authorities were behind the attack.

In October 2023, the Investigative Committee initiated a criminal case with the charge of state treason in the form of defection to the enemy against Russian lawyer Ilya Novikov, who has been living in Kyiv for quite some time.

A Fragmented Community

These incidents reflect only a tiny part of the pressure that lawyers in Russia are facing. The arrest of Navalny’s lawyers, along with concerns about a repeat of the Belarusian scenario in Russia, have prompted some lawyers to circulate a petition proposing a strike to compel the government to take lawyers into account. Some regard this as a positive sign of consolidation within the legal community. However, the leadership of the Federal Bar Association has called for the association’s members to refrain from “political actions” and has suggested using alternative means to communicate with the government. So it is unlikely that such consolidation will occur.

The legal community in Russia reflects society. It is uneven and highly fragmented. Some support the government no matter what it does. Some work as public defenders, earning an average of 3,000 rubles (approximately $33) per day, and fear losing this income in case of a strike. Some want to stay out of politics and believe that politics can never touch them. A few lawyers are executing professional fiduciary duties, places their clients’ interests above their own.

Under these circumstances, the Russian legal profession, which is already going through challenging times, anticipates even bleaker times when the risk of ending up in prison for carrying out professional duties will be added to lawyers’ powerlessness.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Igor Slabykh

Igor Slabykh

Lawyer and Legal Manager
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more