Russian Lawyers, Activists Sound Alarm Over State Pressure On Prominent Defense Attorney


When human rights lawyer Karinna Moskalenko learned that fellow attorney Ivan Pavlov had been detained in Moscow, alarm bells rang.

“This is a real state of emergency,” Moskalenko, who 20 years ago was the first Russian lawyer to speak before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and to win a case from Russia, wrote on Facebook on April 30.

“A lot depends — for him and for us all — on how we act now,” Moskalenko wrote. “For my part, I am sending the alarm to the headquarters of the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva. And I am asking this global organization to act immediately.”

Karina Moskalenko

In a post the same day, journalist and human rights activist Zoya Svetova called the prominent defense attorney “a knight among lawyers.” “Pavlov is an absolutely fearless and professional lawyer who is also sensitive and loyal,” Svetova wrote. She urged “a majority of bold, honest, and professional colleagues” to come to his aid and to the aid of the legal profession in Russia generally.

Pavlov, who specializes in cases involving state secrets, was questioned in Moscow and is under investigation for allegedly disclosing classified information about the ongoing investigation of former journalist Ivan Safronov. Safronov is accused of giving classified information about Russian arms sales to the Czech Republic, which he denies.

Also on April 30, law enforcement searched the St. Petersburg office of Pavlov’s legal-aid NGO Team 29, the home of the group’s IT specialist, the apartment of Pavlov’s wife, and Pavlov’s dacha.

At a court hearing the same day, a judge granted a prosecution request that Pavlov be barred from using the Internet or communicating with witnesses in the Safronov case.

‘A Bone In The Throat’

The Telegram channel SOTA posted a copy of the complaint that triggered the case, which was signed by Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Aleksandr Bortnikov and addressed to the head of the Investigative Committee, Aleksandr Bastrykin.

Pavlov’s lawyer and longtime Team 29 colleague, Yevgeny Smirnov, wrote on Telegram that Bortnikov rarely signs such documents himself.

Ivan Pavlov (left) appears in a Moscow courtroom with Ivan Safronov in July 2020.

Ivan Pavlov (left) appears in a Moscow courtroom with Ivan Safronov in July 2020.

Lawyer Irina Biryukova made headlines in 2018 when she briefly left Russia because of threats when she was working on a case of alleged torture in a prison in the Yaroslavl region. She told RFE/RL the case against Pavlov was a demonstration of power by the security services aimed at the entire human rights community.

“He has been like a bone in the throat of the security agencies,” Biryukova told RFE/RL. “Any pressure against a lawyer — particularly one involved in political cases — is pressure against human rights as a whole. This is an attempt to show us all that now the security forces can do anything they want without consequences. To show that they can come for any dissenter at any moment. It is pressure not only against lawyers, but against the entire human rights community.”

“And I’m sure this is not the end of it,” she added. “Toward the autumn, we’ll feel all its charms. Things are not going to get any better.”

Irina Biryukova

Irina Biryukova

Russia is preparing for elections to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, which must be held by September 19. President Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party has been polling at historically low levels, and many observers link this to the government’s latest crackdown on opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and his colleagues, as well as on other dissenters and independent media outlets.

Pavlov had a long-running conflict with the FSB, and particularly with Aleksandr Cheban, the FSB investigator handling the Safronov case, Smirnov said. A Team 29 post on Telegram on April 30 quoted Smirnov as saying Cheban had told Pavlov, “You are standing on our throat, and we will do everything we can to put you in prison.”

Team 29 lawyer Maksim Olenichev told RFE/RL that “Ivan was threatened many times, since his human rights activity centered on defending innocent people from state pressure.”

Pavlov, 50, was born in St. Petersburg and graduated from the St. Petersburg University law department in 1997. He immediately became involved in his first major case, defending Russian Navy Captain Aleksandr Nikitin, who was accused of publishing classified information about emergency situations on Russian nuclear submarines. Nikitin was acquitted by the Russian Supreme Court in 2000. Nikitin was the first person in the Soviet or post-Soviet eras to be acquitted of a treason charge.

Freedom Of Information

More recently, Pavlov defended Svetlana Davydova, a woman from the Smolensk region who was accused in 2015 of passing military information to Ukraine the previous year. The charges against her were dropped for lack of evidence that a crime had been committed. In addition, the Prosecutor-General’s Office sent her a written apology.

Also in 2015, Pavlov created Team 29, which was devoted to”attaining justice in cases involving freedom of information.” In 2019, the group won a Supreme Court case that enabled a Russian to get information about his grandfather,who was executed in 1933.

Pavlov also defended physicist Viktor Kudryavtsev, who died of cancer on April 29 while awaiting trial on treason charges. Pavlov was able to get him released from pretrial custody, which he later claimed had “completely damaged his health.”

Scientist Viktor Kudryavtsev's health was "completely damaged" by his detention, Pavlov said.

Scientist Viktor Kudryavtsev’s health was “completely damaged” by his detention, Pavlov said.

Pavlov has also been defending Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) against the government’s efforts to have it labeled “extremist.” Some observers believe the case against Pavlov could be connected to his involvement in that high-profile case.

Human rights advocate Pavel Chikov wrote on Telegram that the Justice Ministry had already twice complained to the Petersburg Chamber of Advocates alleging that Pavlov had revealed secret information in connection with the Safronov case.

‘In The Face Of Outrage’

“Both times the Petersburg chamber refused to take disciplinary actions,” Chikov wrote. For its part, the chamber on April 30 published an open letter to Bastrykin, Bortnikov, and other senior officials saying the case against Pavlov “was being created by representatives of the investigative authorities with blatant and intentional violations of Russia’s criminal-procedural legislation.”

“The legal community cannot reconcile itself with the clearly illegal practices of the investigative authorities in forcibly taking confidential information from lawyers involved in criminal defense,” the letter stated. It added that investigators’ actions “will inevitably lead to the destruction of the legal foundations of our state.”

Pskov region legislator and opposition politician Lev Shlosberg told RFE/RL that the cases Pavlov had taken on in his career involving charges of “treason, terrorism, and extremism are usually cases that were initiated by the Russian government to cover up political persecution.”

“They are an attempt to destroy — legally, and sometimes physically — political opponents,” he added. “Defending the accused in such cases is a direct fight against the government in its bid to destroy dissent.”

Lev Shlosberg

Lev Shlosberg

In 2016, when Shlosberg became the first laureate of the annual Boris Nemtsov Foundation prize, he donated the entire 10,000-euro ($12,070) prize to Team 29. According to Team 29’s annual report, they spent almost all the money defending Natalya Sharina, the former director of Moscow’s Library of Ukrainian Literature, who was accused of purchasing extremist materials.

“These people are real defenders of the law in the face of outrage,” Shlosberg said in his acceptance speech. “They are the defenders of the citizen in the face of the despotism of the state. They are working hard in the name of freedom and democracy in our country.”

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Russia by Anna Yarovaya and Svetlana Prokopyeva of the North.Realities desk of RFE/RL’s Russian Service



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