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Russia: Protect Human Rights Lawyer

‘Look Over Your Shoulder,’ Police in Caucasus Region Tell Attorney for Memorial

(Moscow) – Russia should immediately ensure an end to police harassment of a human rights lawyer in Kabardino-Balkaria and guarantee his safety, Human Rights Watch said today. A police official explicitly threatened Rustam Matsev, a lawyer with the Memorial Human Rights Center, in connection with a case he is working on.

Matsev went to the pretrial detention center in Nalchik, the capital of Kabardino-Balkaria, a republic in the North Caucasus region, on May 31, 2012, to be present during the interrogation of a client, Kazbulat Labazanov. When Matsev walked into the interrogation room, a police officer confronted Matsev, accusing him of “teaching” his client to lie about being abducted, beaten, and threatened. The police officer insinuated that Matsev supported Islamic insurgents in the republic and warned that Matsev could find himself blocked in a house and “eliminated” during a counterinsurgency operation. He told Matsev to be careful and to “look over his shoulder,” because the police are watching him.

“These are serious, blatant threats,” said Tanya Lokshina, senior Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “We are deeply concerned about Matsev’s safety, especially in light of numerous incidents of vicious harassment and physical attacks against lawyers in the North Caucasus.”

Russian authorities should investigate the incident and hold the police officer to account, Human Rights Watch said.

Labazanov is accused of possessing and transporting explosives, which he alleges police planted on him. He was arrested after he was subject to an abduction-style detention and torture in 2010. Credible allegations of fabricated criminal cases related to the insurgency in the region are common in the North Caucasus, where the counterinsurgency operation is rife with human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

“Courageous lawyers like Matsev and human rights organizations groups like Memorial often represent the source of hope for victims of abduction-style detentions, torture, and other unlawful methods used in counterinsurgency operations by law enforcement and security agencies in the region,” Lokshina said.

When Labazanov was finally brought into the room, the police officer tried to coerce him to withdraw his earlier testimony and plead guilty. Despite Matsev’s efforts to intervene, the officer kept accusing Matsev’s client of lying and demanded a confession. Matsev insisted that the official interrogation report indicates that the police officer was unduly pressuring Matsev’s client.

On June 1, Matsev sent a complaint about the officer’s threats against him to the prosecutor general of the Russian Federation, the Kabardino-Balkaria prosecutor, and the Federal Investigation Committee, the state agency responsible for criminal investigations. Matsev said he believed his life was in danger due to the nature of the threats and asked the authorities to intervene immediately. He has not yet received a response to his complaint.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers provides, in principle 16, that “governments shall ensure that lawyers ( a ) are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference; …and ( c ) shall not suffer, or be threatened with, prosecution or administrative, economic or other sanctions for any action taken in accordance with recognized professional duties, standards and ethics.” Principle 17 states that, “Where the security of lawyers is threatened as a result of discharging their functions, they shall be adequately safeguarded by the authorities.”

Human Rights Watch called on the Russian government to demonstrate its commitment to the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers by effectively and impartially investigating the threats against Matsev and taking appropriate action against the police officer involved. The government should abide by the pledges its leaders have made and international obligations to allow lawyers and activists in the North Caucasus to engage in human rights work safely.

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