Just Another Attack on Human Rights Defenders?
July 20, 2023
  • Maxim Krupskiy

    Visiting scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Non-Resident Fellow, The Russia Program at George Washington University

Maxim Krupskiy writes about the findings relating to the recent attack on attorney Alexander Nemov and Novaya Gazeta journalist Yelena Milashina in Chechnya and the challenges human rights defenders face in Russia today.

On July 4, Novaya Gazeta journalist Yelena Milashina and attorney Alexander Nemov were brutally beaten in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, as they arrived for the announcement of the verdict in the case of Zarema Musaeva, the mother of opposition activists Abubakar and Ibragim Yangulbayev who was kidnapped and taken to Chechnya in 2022 and charged with violence against a government official and fraud. The photos of Milashina beaten, doused with brilliant green antiseptic and forcibly shaved by her attackers traveled around the world and became another vivid testimony to the price that journalists and human rights defenders must pay today for their decision to continue their work in Russia, and especially in Chechnya.

Russian attacks on human rights defenders

Attacks on journalists and human rights defenders are by no means a new phenomenon in contemporary Russia. In October 2006, Novaya Gazeta journalist Anna Politkovskaya was murdered in the entrance of her home in Moscow; in November 2007, Oleg Orlov, chairman of the board of the Memorial Human Rights Center, along with journalists from REN TV, were seized and beaten in Ingushetia; in January 2009, Novaya Gazeta freelance journalist Anastasia Baburova and well-known human rights activist and attorney Stanislav Markelov were shot dead in Moscow; in July 2009, Natalya Estemirova, an employee of Memorial, was found shot dead in Ingushetia; in December 2014, the office of the human rights organization Committee against Torture was burned down in Grozny; the head of the committee, human rights defender Igor Kalyapin, has been repeatedly attacked – for example, in March 2016, in Grozny, he was beaten, doused with brilliant green, and pelted with eggs, flour and cake.

These are just the most prominent of the many attacks on independent journalists, human rights defenders and civic activists in Putin's Russia. As a rule, it is extremely difficult to effectively investigate crimes committed to silence those who fight for freedom of speech and human rights, and virtually impossible to bring the organizers to justice. In conducting investigations, executive authorities are guided by the will of the Kremlin rather than the letter of the law and will never do more than they are allowed to.
There is no reason to expect that the organizers and perpetrators of the attack on Yelena Milashina and Alexander Nemov will be found and brought to justice.
Attorney Ivan Pavlov specialized in cases related to state secrets, high treason and espionage. He was forced to leave Russia after the legal restrictions imposed upon him made impossible his work as a defense lawyer. Source: Wiki Commons
There are no signs that the situation with security for human rights defenders in Russia is improving. Recently, against the backdrop of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the tightening of legislation on “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations”, and the general rhetoric of war with the so-called “collective West,” stigmatization and open persecution of people deemed a threat by the Russian authorities have become systemic.

Russian attorneys under attack

Russian human rights attorneys are under increasing pressure from the authorities as well. For a long time it seemed that – unlike human rights defenders and employees of NGOs or public organizations – the status of an attorney provided at least a higher degree of immunity from politically motivated persecution. Today, this is changing, and more and more attorneys in Russia are becoming the target of persecution, which can take various forms, from being recognized as a “foreign agent” and deprived of the status of an attorney to proceedings under “political” articles of the Criminal Code.

The first attorneys to be included in the “foreign agents” register were Ivan Pavlov, the founder of the human rights project First Department, and his colleague Valeria Vetoshkina. A few months before he was recognized as a “foreign agent” in November 2021, a politically motivated criminal case was brought against Pavlov for disclosure of preliminary investigation data. The reason for the case was Pavlov's comments to the media on the high-profile case of his client, journalist Ivan Safronov, who had been accused of treason.

Because of the criminal charges brought against him, Pavlov had been barred from using the internet and communicating with clients and colleagues in Russia, which completely paralyzed his work as a defense lawyer and forced him to leave the country. In March 2022, after numerous demands from the Russian Ministry of Justice to deprive Pavlov of his attorney status, the Council of the St Petersburg Bar Association suspended it.
Attorney Mikhail Benyash defended opposition activists and people who refused to fight in Ukraine. He was recognized as a “foreign agent” and debarred despite a public protest signed by over 100 Russian lawyers. Source: Wiki Commons
In February 2023, Mikhail Benyash, a lawyer who defended many human rights activists, was deprived of his attorney status. The formal reason for the disbarring was a violation of lawyer ethics. Benyash published posts on social media criticizing the leadership of bar chambers who it is impossible to remove. According to the Russian Law on the Bar, the president of a bar association is an elected position. The presidents of the regional and federal chambers of attorneys are supposed to be elected from among the members of the councils of the chambers. In reality, the heads of the chambers are changed extremely rarely. He also criticized the process by which the Ministry of Justice declares individuals and civic organizations as “foreign agents”.

Benyash’s online posts were deemed unethical by the Qualification Commission of the Krasnodar Region Bar Association, which led to the decision to strip him of his attorney status. At about the same time, Benyash was found guilty in an administrative case for “discrediting” the Russian army. The reason was that he spoke in public against Russian aggression in Ukraine.

A few months before that, Benyash was recognized as a “foreign agent”, which made full-fledged work as a defense lawyer virtually impossible. In particular, he was barred from participating in a criminal case that involved state secrets. According to the current legislation, “foreign agents” are barred access to state secrets, and this prohibition also applies to lawyers.

Another victim of politically motivated prosecution is attorney Dmitri Talantov, who has been in prison since June 2022 on charges of spreading “fakes” about the Russian army through Facebook. He faces up to 10 years in prison. The human rights project Support for Political Prisoners. Memorial has recognized Talantov as a political prisoner.

Persecution targeting independent human rights attorneys and lawyers is becoming increasingly common, and the above list of instances is not exhaustive.
Russian Justice Minister Konstantin Chuychenko recently stated that the state should have the right to decide which attorneys should be recognized as unreputable for the justice system and removed from it.
He also called for limiting the independence of the Russian Bar from the state.

Violence as a consequence of stigmatization

While the Russian authorities pressure independent journalists, civil activists, NGO workers, human rights attorneys and lawyers deemed politically “unreliable” and portray them as “the main instrument for Western states to exert destabilizing influence on the domestic and foreign policy of Russia," the Russian public increasingly sees them as pariahs who not only do not deserve protection from the state and in fact pose a threat to it.

In the context of the war against Ukraine, Russia's anti-human rights agenda provides fertile ground for the idea that violence against “unreliable” individuals is permissible and legitimate to spread. Under such circumstances, law enforcement agencies obviously cannot be expected to investigate crimes against “enemies of the regime”, such as the brutal attack against Milashina and Nemov.

The rare reaction to this attack from the highest Russian officials again confirms fears that an effective investigation of the crime is unlikely to take place.
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