Attacks, detention and prosecution of lawyers - including while performing their professional duties - is not unusual in Russia, but what happened ahead of the January 23 protests takes this harassment to a new level.
I spoke with two lawyers – one in Moscow and one in Krasnodar – who had previously represented detained protesters in other cases, now themselves detained for representing peaceful protesters. Both are also actively involved in human rights work. By detaining them, the authorities sought not only to interfere with their work, but to send a clear warning to their colleagues and fellow human rights defenders.
In the evening of January 21, Moscow-based human rights lawyer Mansur Gilmanov arrived at a police station to defend his client, Vladlen Los. Los is a lawyer with the Foundation Against Corruption, affiliated with Alexey Navalny, whom police had detained earlier that day.
Gilmanov presented all required documents at the precinct’s checkpoint. An officer told him to wait for somebody to take him to his client. After 40 minutes watching other people allowed in and repeated inquiries, Gilmanov told police he wanted to file a complaint that they were interfering with his client’s right to legal representation. An officer eventually buzzed him into the station to submit the complaint. As he reached the duty officer’s window, the officer ran up to him, knocked him to the floor, kicked him several times, and shouted obscenities.
The police then held Gilmanov for 4- 5 hours without explanation, while two other lawyers unsuccessfully tried to see him. Finally, around 2 am, police finally granted the lawyers access to Gilmanov. Shortly after Gilmanov met with his lawyers, the police transferred him to another station, where he spent the night in a room without a bed.
In the morning Gilmanov was taken before a judge on charges of “non-compliance with police orders.” The judge refused defence requests to see evidence, including additional CCTV footage from the station that would have showed what happened . The court sentenced Gilmanov to 5 days detention.
On January 21, Mikhail Benyash, a lawyer in Krasnodar, southern Russia, posted a passionate call for colleagues to provide legal aid to protesters during upcoming protests. On the basis of this post a court held that he had organized an “unauthorized protest.”
The next day police searched his apartment. They claimed it was in connection with a case involving a replica of a gun supposedly implicating his landlord. However, Benyash told me that in practice the search was a pretext to raid his apartment, confiscate his computer and other devices, and interfere with his work helping detained protesters. Benyash was taken to the precinct, questioned briefly and then arrested for his social media post.
The incidents have unsettled and galvanized the defence lawyers’ community. Gilmanov said the Moscow regional bar appealed the ruling in his case. Fellow lawyers published an open letter, signed by almost 300 lawyers, condemning the attack on Gilmanov and calling for police accountability. The local Krasnodar bar association called the ruling against Benyash unlawful and in violation of his rights but took no further action.
The President of the Federal Bar of Russia said in an interview that denial of lawyers’ access to their clients is a persistent problem in Russia and that in some cases police abuse tenacious lawyers by assaulting them and opening administrative and even criminal cases against them to cover their tracks.
Gilmanov told me his case is part of the broader pattern of persecution of opposition activists in the country. An online independent journalism project covering issues pertaining to lawyers’ work, recently published an overview of interference with lawyers’ work. The study showed a flurry of cases in which police denied lawyers access to clients who had been detained both ahead of and following the January 23 protests. Benyash drew parallels between the work he and his colleagues are able to do in Russia’s current legal climate, and palliative care for patients – they cannot offer to cure or end state violations, but lawyers can reduce the suffering.