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Threat of Prosecution Forces Closure of Top Russian Rights Group

Authorities Use "Undesirables" Law against Team 29

Russian lawyer Ivan Pavlov, center, walks to attend a court session after speaking to the media at Moscow Court, in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, June 9, 2021.  © 2021 Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP Photo

On July 18, Team 29, a leading association of Russian human rights lawyers, announced it was shutting down because its members, clients, and supporters faced imminent risk of prosecution. Several days earlier, the state media and communications watchdog, Roskomnadzor, blocked the group’s website on orders of the Prosecutor General’s Office.

Team 29’s said the prosecutor’s office had falsely equated their group with a Czech freedom of information organization, Společnost Svobody Informace, recently banned in Russia as “undesirable.”   

Adopted in 2015 and further toughened in 2021, Russia’s deliberately broad and vague law on “undesirable organizations” authorizes the prosecutor’s office to designate as “undesirable” any foreign or international organization deemed to undermine Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order. The law has consistently been used to stifle critics, intimidate their Russian supporters, and cut local groups and activists off from foreign partners. Any “involvement” with an “undesirable organization” may result in administrative or criminal sanctions, including up to six years’ imprisonment.

Team 29’s leader, Ivan Pavlov, is a human rights lawyer well known for groundbreaking work to protect freedom of information. He had been on the Czech group’s board but stepped down years ago. Team 29 said they have no connection to the group and view the conflation as a means to “criminalize” their work.

Team 29’s dissolution statement said, “As a next step, [the authorities] may launch criminal prosecution of Team 29’s members and supporters, all those who helped us, cooperated with us. …For Team 29 to continue…would create a direct and evident threat for many people’s safety and we cannot ignore this risk. ...Our lawyers will continue with their cases in their personal capacity, if clients do not refuse their services.”

For close to seven years, Team 29 did stellar work, taking on trumped-up treason, espionage, and state secrets cases, fighting for people about to be crushed by the mighty security services’ machinery. They fought fiercely for freedom of information and published user-friendly advice for activists and others facing arrest, interrogation, and recruitment attempts by security officials. For years, they persevered through harassment, surveillance, and threats. In May, the authorities brought bogus criminal charges against Pavlov, who now also faces disbarment.

The final act against Team 29 resulted in its dissolution, but its courageous lawyers will continue to protect victims of rights abuses. That always gives hope.

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