After the arrest of Russian opposition leader Aleksej Navalny at the Sheremetyevo airport and his ensuing detention, hundreds of thousands of people participated in January in peaceful protests throughout all of Russia. Reports state that thousands of protesters were arrested on the 23rd and 31st of January. After the trial against Aleksej Navalny on the 2nd of February, which resulted in his imprisonment, again protests erupted, and another 1.400 people were detained. Russian lawyers who attempted to offer legal assistance to the large number of arrestees experienced many problems.
The Russian organization “Voice of Attorney” documented dozens of cases of lawyers that were not given access to their clients in detention. This did not only happen in Moscow, where the largest protest took place, but all across the country. It has also been alleged that lawyers themselves became the victim of physical attacks when they tried to support the protestors in the streets or to visit them in detention.
Right to legal assistance
One of the cases documented by “Advocate’s Voice” concerns the situation of Mansur Gilmanov. Gilmanov tried to visit his client in detention on January 21st. He signed in with all necessary documents, and was asked to wait while they would get his client. After 40 minutes of waiting and multiple requests to see his client, Gilmanov informed the police that he would like to file a complaint because according to him the police was violating the right of his client to legal assistance. When he entered the office to file the complaint he was physically attacked by a police officer. Afterwards he was held at the police station overnight.
A couple days after this incident, fellow lawyers of Gilmanov published an open letter, signed by almost 300 lawyers, in which the attack on Gilmanov was condemned and the holding ‘accountable’ of the police was called for.
Situation of lawyers before the protests
That lawyers in Russia experience problems when practicing their profession is not something that only emerged in the past few weeks. The focusgroup Russia of Lawyers for Lawyers has supported their colleagues in Russia for years. In 2019, 6 lawyer volunteers of Lawyers for Lawyers travelled to Moscow to give a training to a group of 25 Russian lawyers and legal students about human rights mechanisms of the United Nations. From the discussions that Lawyers for Lawyers held with their fellow lawyers it became clear that Russian lawyers experience many difficulties in their work because of laws and practices that limit their freedom of exercise their profession. For instance, law firms are regularly subjected to searches during which files with confidential information are confiscated, lawyers’ access to their clients in detention is often limited, and sometimes they are threatened or physically abused. Lawyers for Lawyers has already submitted multiple reports about this worrying situation to the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Human Rights Committee.
Support for colleagues
In December 2020 Lawyers for Lawyers co-organised an online seminar about the situation of Russian lawyers. The stories of Russian lawyers that spoke during the event confirmed to us once more that a free and independent practice of the legal profession is not self-evident for many lawyers and that they deserve our full support.