Lawyers who defend political prisoners in Russia are facing rising risks of being imprisoned themselves, with standing up for rights in courts becoming almost as dangerous as being an opposition politician or a journalist.
In early October, the lawyers who had been representing Alexei Navalny were arrested
. Igor Sergunin, Alexei Liptser and Vadim Kobzev now face up to six years in prison for “involvement in an extremist group using their official positions.”
Navalny associate Ivan Zhdanov wrote
on his Telegram channel that the prosecution has accused the lawyers of providing Navalny with news, which allegedly helped Navalny “exercise the functions of the leader and head of the extremist organization.”
Following the arrest, the human rights project Pervy Otdel (Department One) published
an open letter in support of independent lawyering in Russia.
“Defense is not complicity. Lawyers are not partners or accomplices of their clients; they provide them with protection, a right guaranteed by the Constitution of Russia. So, does defending a person accused of murder mean suspecting the defender of this heinous crime? No, this cannot and should not be the case,” they wrote in the letter.
This is not the first crackdown on defenders of political prisoners.
On the same day that Navalny’s lawyers were taken into custody, lawyer Alexei Ladin, who had been defending Ukrainian war and political prisoners, was also arrested
in an administrative case in annexed Crimea.
His lawyer Emil Kurbedinov said that Ladin was arrested for “discrediting the Russian army” by sharing a post on Facebook and a protest poster “Crimean Tatars Are Not Terrorists” with images of the tamga and trident, Ukrainian symbols.
“The [prosecution] expert believed it was an image of the Noman Çelebicihan Battalion (a Crimean Tatar armed group that took part in the 2015 activist-led blockade of Crimea)
, which is entirely different. As a result, he was given a 14-day detention,” Kurbedinov said
Last year, Dmitri Talantov, the lawyer of journalist Ivan Safronov (convicted of treason), became
the subject of a criminal case himself. Now, he faces up to 10 years in prison for “spreading fake information about the Russian army.”
The reason for Talantov’s arrest was his Facebook post about the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine.
Prior to Talantov, Ivan Pavlov had been Safronov’s lawyer. Facing a potential criminal case on accusations of sharing information from the initial investigation of Safronov’s case with the media, Pavlov ended up leaving
Earlier this year, Vadim Prokhorov, the lawyer for the politician Vladimir Kara-Murza, also left
Russia amid criminal prosecution. Throughout his career, Prokhorov had defended opposition politicians like Navalny, Ilya Yashin and Boris Nemtsov.
Getting released after being charged is nearly impossible. According to statistics
from the Judicial Department at Russia’sSupreme Court, in 2022 the acquittal rate was 0.33%, meaning one acquittal for every 300 convictions.
Despite the personal risks and the sense of powerlessness before Russian law enforcement agencies, many lawyers remain in Russia.
One of them is Maria Eismont. She believes that lawyers are very important in Russia because they are often the “only connection to the outside world” for prisoners.
One of Eismont’s clients was brought from Ukraine to Moscow for investigation, where she knew no one. Eismont bought
her pads, a comb, cream, bras, underpants, coffee, tea, sweets, T-shirts, a roomy sweater and slippers.
“I entered the case as her defender, and she was brought to me for a meeting in the interrogation room – in the same sweater that I had sent her. And she confessed: ‘when I received the package, I burst into tears. Because I realized that someone knew where I am. That someone is thinking about me. And these things – it was exactly what I needed.’ At that moment, I was proud of myself,” Eismont said.