Defenseless Behind Bars
While drowning in the current deluge of daily news, we might not notice that the ground is also moving under our feet. Russia recently crossed a line that deserves our attention, another major step toward the disintegration of a legal system.
You might think of lawyers primarily as spokespersons in courtrooms, but for political prisoners in Russia today, a lawyer’s most important role is arguably more analogous to that of a hospice doctor. In the medical scenario, the patient’s fate is already sealed: all the doctor can do is provide palliative care to make the final journey less excruciating. Likewise with Russians arrested on political charges, there is a fixed outcome that the lawyer has little influence over. A prisoner experiences the psychological pain of isolation, and sometimes also the physical pain of beatings, torture, or unbearable conditions. Friends and family members may have infrequent or no rights to visit a political prisoner, but a lawyer has guaranteed access. A lawyer can alleviate psychological pain by bringing and delivering messages. The presence of a lawyer can also mitigate physical pain, because when a lawyer shows up, the jailers know that there is someone there to observe the prisoner, someone who expects to see them alive, healthy, and uninjured, someone who can report to the outside world about mistreatment.
But now imagine the situation of the patient when there is no doctor anymore. And the situation of a political prisoner when there is no lawyer anymore.
On October 13, 2023, in a surprise sting action, three of Aleksei Navalny’s lawyers, Igor Sergunin, Aleksei Liptser, and Vadim Kobzev were arrested by the Basmanny court in Moscow. Two others, Olga Mikhailovna and Aleksandr Fedulov escaped and managed to flee the country. The three arrested stand accused of working for an “extremist organization”, the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK in Russian), headed by Aleksei Navalny. This is in essence the same charge on which Navalny was sentenced to 19 years in prison, which he is currently serving in solitary confinement in Vladimir Colony Number 2. A steady sequence of judicial and legislative decisions, probably orchestrated from the highest levels, has created an environment in which the FBK is considered such a dangerous extremist organization that anyone connected with it can be prosecuted, even the legal defenders of its members.
As part of their professional duties, the lawyers had conveyed messages to and from Navalny. However, because Navalny is the leader of the FBK, and the FBK has been designated an “extremist organization”, since the lawyers were providing a communication channel for the FBK, they are now accused of acting as accomplices to the FBK.
Two of the arrests didn’t even make sense: both Sergunin and Liptser stopped working for Navalny over a year ago. And all of the arrests have cruel consequences for the families: Sergunin is a widower and single father, Liptser also has a child, and Kobzev has three. But this is not a story just about Navalny and his lawyers, this is a story about a whole country and a whole legal system.
When a country imprisons lawyers for defending dissidents, it denies the human rights of all its citizens, and undermines the entire justice system.
Russia has been edging toward this point for a long time, at least since Putin began arresting opponents such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, declared by Amnesty International to be a “prisoner of conscience” during his ten-year term (2003-2013). Lawyers defending opposition leaders have been harassed and pushed into exile. For example, Vadim Prokhorov, lawyer for political prisoner Vladimir Kara-Murza, was threatened with a criminal case for disrespecting the court and given the choice to leave the country or face charges. Prokhorov left in April 2023. And the Russian Duma has now proposed a law to deprive lawyers who have been abroad for more than one year of their license to practice.
A pilot project has been carried out in Belarus to rehearse procedures against lawyers. In May 2022 the lawyer defending 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski, Vitaly Braginets, was arrested and subsequently sentenced to 8 years. Then in April of this year another lawyer in Belarus, Aleksandr Danilevich got 10 years for defending dissidents.
Now in Russia it is possible to prosecute a lawyer on the same charges as the client. Even in the USSR, this did not happen. Lawyers in Soviet times might be interrogated, deprived of their status as lawyers, or chased out of the country, but they were not put in jail.
The purpose of these arrests is clear: they are intended to scare the rest of the 80,000 lawyers in Russia into compliance, such that they will refuse to defend and protect political prisoners. And ultimately to scare the entire populace into submission. Olga Romanova, director of Russia Behind Bars (Rus’ sidiashchaya) estimates that in Russia there are many more than the 600 or so political prisoners whose names are known. And in a climate where classmates denounce their fellow students, pupils denounce their teachers, neighbors denounce each other, and anyone can be arrested on flimsy or even concocted charges, everyone is a potential political prisoner.
This is a huge shift, with consequences for all Russians, and potentially for all states that fail to condemn this practice.
Laura Alexis Janda is a Professor of Russian Linguistics at the Department of Language and Culture at the UiT- Arctic University of Norway.