‘You can still alleviate the horror in which a person finds himself.’
April 19, 2023
  • Maria Eismont
  • Margarita Aløhina
Maria Eismont speaks about her work as a lawyer defending political prisoners. Since getting an acquittal is impossible, she sees her mission as improving her clients’ lives somehow, just coming to them, sending greetings from their friends, and chatting with them.
The original text in Russian appeared in Cherta. A shortened version is being republished here with their permission.
Maria Eismont with her colleagues in front of a Moscow courthouse. May, 2021. Source: Facebook
How has your work changed since February 24, 2022?

I have been asked this question very often lately – it seems that people want to hear that since February 24, something has changed radically in our law enforcement and judicial system.

In our lives, sure, almost everything has changed: our future, our plans for it, everything that we live, breathe, what we all feel. Because a terrible war was started. But the law enforcement and judicial system was the same on February 24 as it is now.

Everyone was rightly indignant at how [Vladimir] Kara-Murza was detained for no reason, but this had all happened before – for example, two years before in the case of Lusya Shtein, there was roughly the same, frankly insane explanation for her detention.

And even earlier, such a position of the courts had emerged as “we have no reason not to trust the police,” no matter the ridiculous-looking reports. None of this started today or even yesterday.

Yes, there are new Criminal Code articles. But offenses used for repression have been added to the books for a long time now and regularly. And the cases about “military censorship” are not a qualitative change, though of course they are perceived as another new low.

“There is only one truth, and it flows from the lips of the authorities, everything else is lies and extremism” – this approach existed even before any information that contradicted the briefings of Lavrov and Konashenkov was considered “deliberately false information about the Armed Forces.”
For a while now, if the authorities really want to, a person can be detained without absolutely any grounds whatsoever. A report from any silovik saying that someone attacked him, was rude, was drunk, was swearing is enough.”
And the courts always have “no reason not to trust” such reports.

Everything has been very bad for a very long time. It is completely impossible, if the system wants to steamroll you, to resist that – it has been around long before the war. And in this sense, had we had some other law enforcement and judicial system before February 24, perhaps February 24 would not have happened.

I think that February 24 [2022] happened due to a combination of circumstances. First of all, it is a consequence of the destruction of all institutions of civil society and all independent political and civic forces.

Long before February 24, independent courts that should resolve disputes in society, including disputes between citizens and their elected authorities, disappeared in Russia.

No one has elected the authorities for a long time either, though events called elections are held regularly. Due to the lack of independent courts, there is no place to challenge falsification and removals of candidates.

Thus, the approach that “Russians deserve the government they chose” is not mine. No, Russians did not choose this government.

How do you feel repression has changed?

Repression has grown considerably. People who had not talked about it before have started to.

My clients tell me that a few years ago, if you said in a paddy wagon on the way to court that you were a “political,” then everyone would be bewildered. But now you say “I’m a political” and they ask: “[Article] 270.3? It is fakes or discrediting?” And then someone else will say: “Oh! Me too!”

General awareness of repression has definitely risen. People are much more aware of it and are themselves afraid.

In your work, you interact with officials of this system… What is their attitude about what is happening? Especially against the backdrop of the wave of cases against politicians, cases against “fakes.”

There are people who seem indoctrinated – at least judging by their behavior and what they say. They believe that the state is doing everything right, that the enemy must be punished, that for the sake of the state’s security and stability, it is definitely acceptable to violate people’s rights.

Among people with whom I interact, they are a minority. Most or everyone understands, or guesses, feels that something is wrong. And, since they do not find the strength within themselves to resist or leave, they prefer not to think about it too much.

But, for example, when dealing with cases of military censorship, many siloviki, it seems to me, experience a certain awkwardness.

I know people who left the system after being involved in cases that we would call political. I know people who left the system after February 24. Most leave quietly – you will not find on the internet any mention of loud, voluntary departures over disagreements about the policy at the top of an agency.

Is it good that they are quiet?

It’s their choice, I do not have advice for them. I am just stating that people do leave. I know one official from a security agency who left just a few days after February 24 and the next day following his resignation, he went out to an anti-war protest. He was beaten and detained, and I went to see him at the police station.

But the majority do not leave. The vast majority of the investigators with whom I worked on political cases have told me something like: “They gave me this idiotic political case, I hate politics.” They see it as a repulsive chore. But on other days you get to do the good, necessary things. You are a professional! You go see corpses, you neutralize gangs, you catch thieves, you look for drug dealers. The other days, you are doing good.

But most people with whom I interact do not get any pleasure or joy from “political” cases. They want to get through this unpleasant procedure and return to the real business.
“I sometimes ask: ‘You can’t refuse?’ They look at me with huge eyes, as if to say: ‘how can you refuse if the higher ups have given you something?’”
Sometimes my friends say to me: “Masha, they won’t put you in jail, the investigators love you.” I say: “So what? What say do they have? Their bosses will tell them, and they will do it. They will come to me in pre-trial detention, keep being nice and in love with me during interrogations.”

Do you know cases of silent sabotage, even with small things?

Silent – I do. For example, in the case of Konstantin Kotov (an activist who got four years in prison for repeated violations at rallies; later his sentence was reduced to one and a half years – Cherta) there was a video examination protocol – a standard document where an investigator watches a video and describes what is in it. This was a recording where Kotov is exiting a passage at Kitay-Gorod and within 38 seconds walks a certain number of meters deep into the square near the Plevna Chapel, after which the police run up to him and grab him. And this video, either filmed by some streamer or having gotten into the media or onto YouTube, was attached to the case.

The investigator wrote in the protocol: at such and such second the person is just walking, he is not touching anyone, is not doing anything wrong, is not violating anything, is looking at the ground. At such and such second, the police rush him, they detain him. This protocol was in the case, and we referred to it as evidence of Kotov’s innocence: look, he was seized without any reason. I am not sure that this can be called sabotage – it was an honestly done job. But from that description it clearly followed that Kotov did nothing wrong... Incidentally, that investigator left immediately after the Kotov case.

And just the other day, another investigator in the Kotov case wrote to me that he had resigned. Said he wanted to be a lawyer. That in itself does not say anything, but I would like to believe that he will be an honest lawyer, and the specific experience of being involved in an overtly political case will have affected him in the right way.

Today, I again asked one of the investigators: “What if you refused to prosecute someone you know is innocent?” He replied: “They would banish me straight away.” A lot of people say that, and they might be right.

There is a sense that now there will not be as many people coming to court as there were for the “New Greatness” case.

Many activists and people who were interested in political cases have left the country. Yet still people come to the courts. We had a hearing for Dima Ivanov (a student who ran the Protestny MGU Telegram channel and was sentenced to 8.5 years in prison for “fakes about the army” – Cherta), and the bailiffs had to open the doors, as the hall could not hold the number of people, and put several rows of benches in the hallway.

This is the first time that they did that in my experience. Many words of gratitude were said to the bailiffs, by the way. I hope they felt they did something good. For the next hearing, a stream was organized in the next room.
Ilya Yashin, Maria Eismont's client, was sentenced to 8.5 years in prison for allegedly spreading “disinformation” about Russian atrocities in Bucha. September, 2022. Source: Twitter
How many of your clients have been sentenced in the last six months?

[Ilya] Yashin, Dima Ivanov.

How do you feel about it?

I cannot say it’s been easy. But since I have no doubt lately about what the outcome will be in such cases, I just set different tasks for myself.

How do you get through it?

The main task is to make sure that your presence next to someone improves his situation as much as possible, makes his life easier, helps him to maintain contact with the outside world.

For example, I now have a client, a girl from Ukraine, accused under the terrorism article. They beat her, tortured her with electric shocks, then kept her in a basement – they waited for the marks to disappear. Then they sent her to Moscow, along the way telling her that her family had disowned her. Even before I got on the case, I contacted her family, who, of course, had not disowned her and were actively looking for her. I found out her sizes for clothes, shoes, underwear. And I thought: “What would I like to receive if I were sitting alone in prison in another country after a month in a basement?” And I went to buy her pads, a comb, cream, bras, underpants, coffee, tea, sweets, T-shirts, a roomy sweater, slippers. I shopped as if for myself. I sent the package to her.

We met later. 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.

There is a sense that currently it is useless to defend the rights of the repressed and political prisoners. That nothing can be changed. If that is so, why is it needed?

In every case, you can still improve a person’s life somehow, alleviate the horror in which he finds himself.

When you start a criminal “political” case, getting an acquittal is not your real task. Sure, there are examples of cases being called off – for example, several people were released in the so-called Moscow case. But that is rare. You still cannot seriously hope for that, as you understand what you are dealing with.

For example, I had the case terminated against Kostya Jankauskas for “discrediting the Armed Forces” for reposting the Pope’s prayer for Mariupol. Though the judge came to the conclusion that there was no offense, I still do not at all believe that the outcome was connected solely with my involvement in the case and work on it. I have worked no less and no worse on similar cases that have not ended so well for my clients.

Most of the time, you can’t help stop the case. You just set yourself other, more realistic goals. And you reach them.
Imagine, you are the only person at all who goes to a prisoner and communicates with him without glass and a telephone receiver. You are his only connection to the outside world.”
He sits there around the clock... Right now, Dima Ivanov is sitting in a cell for four, where there are six people. It’s considered a bonus that the toilet is fenced off. You come to him, bring news, discuss some business, send greetings from his friends, you just chat with him about all sorts of nonsense. And then you are getting ready to leave, and he asks: “When are you coming again?” He doesn’t ask, “when will I be released?” Instead, he asks: “When will you visit me next time?” It means that it is important for him that I come.

I often hear: “When will you come again?” It means that the fact that you come to them is already enough to somehow brighten up their day-to-day existence.

For example, I have a client named Valery Golubkin, a 70-year-old professor, PhD, accused of treason. It is a secret case, so, unfortunately, I cannot talk about it, but just believe me: he did not give up any state secrets, all the commissions had concluded that the information could be openly published.

He is very loyal to the state, a Soviet man, a true patriot of the country and of Russian science. And now he has been accused of treason and faces 12 to 20 years. And there is no doubt that since they chose to arrest him, they will continue to extend the arrest – with that article, everyone is arrested, the FSB is running the case. In fact, there is no judicial control over the legality of the measure of restraint, and every two months he just has a seemingly meaningless trial to extend the arrest.

And every time we write an appeal against the extension. But it is only at first glance that the trial seems meaningless and that it is pointless to appeal against the arrest. That’s because his relatives come to the court. The case is secret, but they are allowed to hear the decision.

They can see him for all of 15 minutes. And if the judge is kind, then they will be let in as soon as the judge retires to the deliberation room to make a decision – and it will then be 30 or 40 minutes. They will be able to sit and look at him, wave to him – because, as a rule, the escort will say that you can’t talk. If the escort is very kind, then he might ignore when they ask: “How is your health, dear?” And he will answer: “Everything is fine, I am very glad to see you.”

And we always appeal the extension of the arrest. Always. Not because I hope that the court will accept the arguments of the appeal. But because he will be brought to the hearing of the appeal. Just about the only plus of these secret cases is that there are no video links – they are worried a terrible secret will leak. So, the person is brought, and relatives can come.

And my task is to say every time in the court: “And one more thing: relatives are sitting out in the hallway, and I ask the judge, when he retires to the deliberation room... Obviously, the case is secret, but since only the basics of the case and resolution will be announced, I ask you to allow the relatives in for the decision.” I say this for the record. And so far, thank God, the judges in the vast majority of cases consent. And we run out for the relatives, we tell them: “You can come in.” They come in and look at him for 30 minutes. It is very important for them.
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