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(Moscow) – Police in Krasnodar, in southern Russia, arrested a defense lawyer, held him incommunicado, and beat him in detention, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately release the lawyer, Mikhail Benyash, and investigate allegations of his ill-treatment while in police custody. Authorities should also drop the politically motivated charges against him.

Police arrested Benyash in Krasnodar on September 9, 2018, as he was meeting with a client who was going to take part in protests against the government’s plans to raise the pension age. Protests were held that day in 39 Russian cities, including Krasnodar. 

Arrested lawyer Mikhail Benyash, Krasnodar, September 9, 2018 © Alexey Avanesyan

“Mikhail Benyash’s arrest was without a doubt retaliation for his work as an outspoken defense lawyer,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Russia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities have gone after him in a demonstrative way that is shocking and deeply troubling.”

Benyash has represented people arrested in other protests in southern Russia. Human Rights Watch has found that law enforcement has cracked down throughout 2018 on unauthorized protests and people associated with them.

The chairman of Russia’s Federal Chamber of Lawyers, made up of regional bar associations, in a media statement objected to Benyash’s arrest. Russia’s presidential human rights council called for a thorough investigation into his arrest.

Benyash’s lawyer, Alexey Avanesyan, told Human Rights Watch that Benyash arrived in Krasnodar from Sochi a day before the unauthorized protest to provide legal assistance to protesters in case they were arrested.  

At around 1:30 p.m. on September 9, as he and Irina Barkhatova, a client, were walking down the street, an unmarked car stopped next to them. Two men in civilian clothing jumped out and, without identifying themselves, grabbed Benyash, and forced him into the back seat. They pushed Barkhatova, who was attempting to film the abduction on her mobile phone, into the front seat.

Barkhatova told Benyash’s lawyer that in the car, Benyash demanded that the men identify themselves and tried to film them on his mobile phone. The men tore the phone from his hands, hit Benyash’s head against the car seat and handcuffed him, forcing him to sit face down with his hands cuffed behind his back.

Barkhatova said that she and Benyash realized that they were being detained by the police only when the car arrived at Krasnodar police station, where the men pushed the handcuffed Benyash out of the car, causing him to fall face down on the parking lot. Eight police officers immediately dragged Benyash into the station. They also took Barkhatova in for questioning.

Avanesyan said that he went to the police station as soon as he learned about Benyash’s arrest, between 1 and 2 p.m., but was denied access to him for almost eight hours. At first, police officials did not let him or anyone else into the station due to a lock-down protocol allegedly invoked because of the ongoing protest. They also repeatedly denied that Benyash was inside, Avanesyan said.

After waiting outside for several hours, Avanesyan managed to speak to a protester who was leaving the station after police detained him briefly. The man said that while at the station, he had seen and filmed on his phone several police officers dragging a man in a green shirt, whose face was bloodied and who was limping, to the stairs leading to the second floor.

The man showed the video to Avanesyan, who recognized Benyash and immediately called an ambulance. “When I saw that video, I knew something was seriously wrong,” Avanesyan said. “If at first I had hoped that Mikhail was held up because he was filling out a ton of paperwork, it was now obvious that he was being ill-treated.”

The ambulance quickly arrived, and Avanesyan followed the paramedics into the station, where he again demanded to see Benyash. Police officials again denied that Benyash was there. Soon thereafter, Avanesyan ran to the second floor before the police could stop him, saw the paramedics leaving a room, and found Benyash there, handcuffed in a chair, his face bruised and bloodied, with three police officials standing over him.

Avanesyan demanded to speak to his client alone. Benyash told Avanesyan that the police had beaten him in the car and also at the station. He said that one officer hit him several times and pushed him, causing Benyash to fall and hit his head on a metal safe. Afterward, he had difficulty hearing.

On September 10, an administrative court sentenced Benyash to 14 days in jail on administrative charges of disobeying a police officer and violating rules for public protests. Human Rights Watch reviewed the police report, which claimed that in the car, Benyash started “beating himself on the face” and “beating his head against a car window.” The police report further claimed that Benyash disobeyed police orders by refusing to stop hitting himself. According to the lawyer, during the hearing the judge rejected his motion to question Barkhatova, the only witness to Benyash’s arrest on September 9.

Arrested lawyer Mikhail Benyash at a court hearing, Krasnodar, September 29, 2018 © Alexey Avanesyan

On September 23, the day Benyash was to be released, the authorities re-arrested him on criminal charges of obstructing justice and assaulting a police officer. The obstruction charge stemmed from a May 2018 court hearing, during which Benyash allegedly interrupted the judge and demonstrated unlawful behavior in court. In the second set of charges, authorities claimed that Benyash hit one police officer during his arrest on September 9 and bit another.

The timing of the obstruction charge strongly suggests that it is spurious, Human Rights Watch said. Any alleged inappropriate conduct could be dealt with by the relevant bar association.

On September 28, Krasnodar district court ordered Benyash sent to pre-trial detention for two months. The prosecution investigator simply listed the reasons established in Russian law for denying bail, including flight risk and possible hindrance of the investigation, without showing any facts as to why these grounds are applicable to Benyash, and the judge did not question this.

There are no grounds to hold Benyash in custody pending the investigation into the officer assault charge, Human Right Watch said. Russia is a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, and the European Court of Human Rights case law has repeatedly clarified that the courts should not rely on “general and abstract” reasons for pre-trial detention.

During the hearing, the judge refused to question several defense witnesses, including Barkhatova, and denied the motion to include the Barkhatova’s footage of the arrest in Benyash’s case file materials, which could have helped establish that when Benyash was seized, he could not have known his captors were police.

“Police groundlessly lock up a lawyer who defends peaceful protesters for one purpose only, and that is to intimidate other lawyers and the public from exercising their fundamental rights,” Gorbunova said.

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