‘There are no official numbers, but we have already registered more than seventy cases in which lawyers did not get access to their clients or experienced serious difficulties. Some were pushed out of the police office with force. The lawyer of FBK, Alexei Navalny’s organisation against corruption, was hit and detained himself for five days.’
It is the beginning of February, and Viacheslav Romanov is still stressed out by everything that happened around Navalny’s conviction and the detention of thousands of peaceful protestors throughout Russia. Romanov is a former lawyer who is now focusing on lawyers’ rights, among other things as the manager of Voice of Attorney (golosadvokata.ru), a media platform that the Dutch organisation Lawyers for Lawyers cooperates with.
Via Zoom, Romanov explains that the violations of lawyers’ rights do not come as a surprise. ‘Lawyers have procedural rights like the right of access to their clients and the right to be informed about procedural steps. But for many years they have been counteracted. Once a penal case in Russia comes to court, chances of a positive result for the client are less than one percent. If there is no conviction, the perception of the state is that the prosecution or the court must have done something wrong. One of the ways to eliminate the lawyer is to not inform him in time about a court session. The state appoints a replacing lawyer who destroys the strategy of the defence.’
But ‘difficult’ lawyers are also not safe themselves in their profession and their freedom. During a conference of Voice of Attorney in December last year, lawyers discussed how colleagues were wiretapped, their phones read out. How any lawyer can loose his license or become subject of a penal case himself.
How to act when arrested
Prior to the big protests in January, several organisations spread guidelines among protestors on how to act when arrested. And when thousands of protestors where detained, lawyers throughout Russia hurried to the police stations under the direction of human rights organisations, to stand by the often young and unexperienced protestors.
Upon arrival, attorneys sometimes had to wait in the cold for hours – in Irkutsk, 52 below zero, a lawyer was allegedly allowed into the building only after she came to suffer from hypothermia.
‘In some cases access was not granted at all,’ says Romanov. ‘This all happened under the name of ‘Fortress’, a regulation meant to prevent detainees from escaping in case of riots for example. No one is allowed to go in, and those hours are used by special investigators to interrogate the protestors without the presence of their lawyers. Often to obtain proof against more important suspects.’
What position does the Federal bar association take? ‘Last year many lawyers were detained or prosecuted. If the Federal bar association spoke against this, the lawyer usually would get out of trouble. But the bar does not always interfere.’
Big question is how it will go from here for the protestors and their lawyers. Romanov: ‘For the protestors I don’t have much hope, that is politics, and the courts will do as they are told. Their lawyers form a threat and are undoubtedly high on the state’s list to be restricted or to lose their licence. If the bar comes to their defence, they may be able to protect them. But the people working in the Federal bar association are usually people who do not ask too many critical questions. And I suspect they are afraid of being suppressed themselves if they speak out for these lawyers too actively. The memory of the soviet era is still alive.’
Now that the reputation of the regime is falling rapidly, it becomes in some sense more honest, Romanov observes. ‘Before, one could still think they were looking for the good. Now that the stakes are so high, with Navalny and all the political activity, it gets more agressive. They don’t see the need to hide the essence of power, to find nice words for it. In a very short time, we have fallen as deep as Belarus.’
A Dutch version of this article was published in Advocatenblad 2021-2