Title: Russian Lawyers Defend Rights Amidst Ukraine Conflict
Subtitle: Young lawyers take up the challenge to protect individuals’ rights amidst a rising number of arrests and human rights violations in Russia during the ongoing conflict with Ukraine.
Sophia Gominova’s determination to become a lawyer solidified at the young age of 11. Born in post-Soviet Russia, she witnessed the country grappling with organized crime and yearned to fight against such malevolence, largely influenced by the police dramas she watched on television.
Now, Gominova, 29, finds herself living her childhood dream. As a young lawyer appalled by the suppression of regime criticism, she joined the main association of Russian lawyers, OVD Info. The organization aids thousands of unlawfully detained prisoners amid the escalating conflict with Ukraine.
“I have always possessed a strong sense of justice,” Gominova informed Reuters in an interview conducted in Poland. “We have witnessed countless injustices committed by the regime, violating the rights of citizens through unjust arrests, physical harm, and arbitrary judgments.”
With protests erupting against the Ukraine invasion, Gominova finds herself spending hours braving the freezing cold of St. Petersburg to gain entrance to the courts. Within those courtrooms, dozens of arrested protesters await their trials.
“Defending protesters in court is my way of protesting,” Gominova affirmed. Since the early stages of the invasion, she has passionately represented anti-war activists in court.
Russian authorities allege that these troublemakers are being instigated by the Western world in an attempt to destabilize their homeland. They deny mistreating prisoners and often categorize human rights lawyers as “enemies of society.”
However, defending the regime in a time of war in Russia carries significant risks. Even school children and pensioners face punishment for speaking out against the Ukraine invasion.
Some lawyers have faced prosecution for publicly opposing the invasion, while dozens have been barred from practicing law, and several prominent attorneys have fled the country. Nevertheless, since the conflict began, 120 new lawyers have fearlessly joined OVD Info, outnumbering those who left the nation threefold, according to Violetta Fitznel, the organization’s spokesperson. The total number of lawyers associated with OVD Info has risen to 442.
Numerous civic groups have been disbanded by the state, and some lawyers are standing alone, representing unaffiliated anti-war activists. The exact number of these lawyers is difficult to determine.
In St. Petersburg alone, 222 lawyers have joined the cause since March of the previous year, bringing the total membership count to 4,692, according to the Bar Association. However, details regarding the fate of seven of these new lawyers—whether they faced suspension or non-renewal—remain undisclosed. A request for information from the Moscow Bar Association went unanswered.
Acquittals within Russian courts are rare, casting doubt on the impartiality of the judicial system. Nonetheless, lawyers play a crucial role in shedding light on the suppression of anti-war activities. OVD Info has recorded nearly 20,000 detentions relating to anti-war actions since February of the previous year.
When asked about the independence of the judiciary, the Judiciary Office of the Supreme Court asserted, “Judges are independent and subject only to the Constitution and laws of Russia.”
Most prominent dissidents who have chosen not to flee the country now find themselves imprisoned. Alexei Navalny, the most prominent critic of President Vladimir Putin, was incarcerated even prior to the Ukraine invasion.
Vladimir Karamurza, a journalist and government critic, received the harshest sentence for treason and related charges since February 2022, receiving 25 years of imprisonment.
Lawyers often act as the only means of communication for protesters during lengthy trials conducted behind closed doors.
During an interview with Reuters, Evgenia, the wife of Karamurza, said, “Lawyers become their voice during the trial, relaying information from prison confidentially and serving as a crucial link between these prisoners and the outside world.”
Vadim Prokhorov, a close friend of Karamurza’s lawyer, had also been critical of Putin’s administration. Just days before his own escape from Russia, Prokhorov warned that “currently in Russia, there are attacks not only on journalists but also on lawyers.” Subsequently, several lawyers and their associates have been arrested.
Russian lawyers have faced backlash from authorities, not only for defending critics of the Ukraine invasion but also for expressing their own opposition.
For instance, Dmitry Tarantov, who represented prominent journalist Ivan Safronov, currently serving a 22-year sentence for treason, now faces a potential prison term of up to 10 years for describing the actions of the Russian army as “very Nazi-like” in a Facebook post.
Maria Bonzler, an attorney associated with OVD Info, faced two fines last year, accused of “defaming the army” after using the term “war” during court proceedings while defending anti-war demonstrators.
Anastasia Rudenko, a lawyer from Ivanovo, northeast of Moscow, was released in June for posting a video on her Telegram channel titled “Don’t Be Afraid of a Lawyer.” The video was deemed to have “discredited the army,” resulting in a fine of 30,000 rubles (approximately $400).
Rudenko employs her Telegram channel to update her nearly 400 subscribers on the cases she handles, including a criminal case involving injured soldiers who refuse to return to the unit after serving in Ukraine.
Rudenko, who has family ties to Ukraine while her husband and brother serve in the Russian army, has participated in several anti-war demonstrations, distributing copies of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, which critiques totalitarianism, to passersby.
Rudenko told Reuters, “States have their own opinions, and from their perspective, we should keep ours to ourselves.”
In the interviews conducted, some young lawyers, lacking extensive experience with the Russian judicial system, acknowledged that they had chosen to represent anti-war activists. However, they also admitted that the task felt arduous.
Yuri Mikhailov, a 25-year-old public defender in the Moscow region, joined OVD Info in early March of the previous year. Most of his clients have been arrested for participating in minor protests. One man, for example, was detained for writing “365 days no” in the snow of a Moscow park a year after the invasion began.
But Mikhailov’s clients also include ordinary citizens who were simply present in public spaces. They were arrested solely due to unfortunate circumstances.
“I can present a compelling argument to the judge, stating that ‘2×2 equals 4,’ and even the opposing party may nod in agreement. However, in the end, the verdict often bends to claim ‘2×2 equals 5,'” Mikhailov noted, highlighting the judiciary’s potential politicization.
Before the Ukraine invasion, Gominova, based in St. Petersburg, primarily dealt with civil cases involving family disputes and consumer rights advocacy. While some consider her a traitor, the majority of her friends and relatives express concern for her safety and pride in her work.
“Sometimes I leave the courtroom boiling with anger, feeling a surge of strength to continue the fight. Other times, I close the courtroom door and find myself bursting into helpless tears,” said Gominova.
As long as she possesses the will to do so, Gominova remains committed to staying in Russia and fighting for justice.
[Reporting by Lucy Papachristou; Translated by Eaklelen]
(Reuters) – Sophia Gominova, 29, decided to become a lawyer when she was 11 years old. Born after the fall of the Soviet Union, Gominova grew up in Russia, plagued by organized crime. Watching police dramas on television made her want to fight against such evil.
Sophia Gominova (pictured) decided to become a lawyer when she was 11 years old. Born after the fall of the Soviet Union, Gominova grew up in Russia, plagued by organized crime. Watching police dramas on television made her want to fight against such evil. That’s what she’s doing now, she believes. FILE PHOTO: Saint Petersburg, June 2023. REUTERS/Anton Vaganov
That’s what she’s doing now, she believes.
As one of the young lawyers outraged by the suppression of regime criticism, Gominova joined OVD Info. This is the main association of Russian lawyers, which is helping thousands of prisoners who are being held against a full-scale attack from Ukraine.
“I always had a strong sense of justice,” Ms Gominova told a Reuters reporter based in Poland.
“We have seen numerous injustices at the hands of the organization, violating citizens’ rights, making unjust arrests, causing physical harm, and making unreasonable judgments and sentences.”
As protests against the invasion of Ukraine, which began last year, began, Gominova spent hours waiting in the freezing weather of St Petersburg to enter the court. Once inside, we zipped through the courtrooms, where dozens of arrested protesters were being tried.
When I get home exhausted, I start working on the appeal.
“Defending protesters in court is my way of protesting,” said Gominova. Early in the invasion, he began defending anti-war activists in court.
Russian authorities say they are dealing with troublemakers who are encouraged by the West to destroy their homeland. Authorities deny abusing prisoners and sometimes label human rights lawyers as “enemies of society.”
Critics of defending the regime have significant risks in wartime Russia. A country where school children and even pensioners are punished for protesting against the invasion of Ukraine.
Some lawyers have been prosecuted for publicly opposing the invasion. Dozens have been banned from practicing law and several high-profile lawyers have left Russia.
But despite the risks, 120 new lawyers have joined the group since the beginning of the invasion, three times as many as those who fled the country, according to Violetta Fitznel, spokesperson for OVD Info. increased to 442.
Many civic groups have been disbanded by the state, and some lawyers stand alone and represent unaffiliated anti-war activists. It’s hard to say how much.
According to the Bar Association of St. Petersburg, 222 lawyers have joined since March last year, bringing the total number of members to 4,692. Seven of the new lawyers have since been suspended or not renewed, but they did not disclose why.
A request for data from the Moscow Bar Association was also unanswered.
Acquittals in Russian courts are generally rare, and some critics say the country’s judicial system is highly politicized.
Nevertheless, lawyers play an important role in explaining the suppression of anti-war activities. Almost 20,000 people have been detained for anti-war activities since February last year, according to a count by OVD Info.
Russia’s Interior Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the status of the detention.
When asked about the independence of the judiciary, the Judiciary Office of the Supreme Court replied, “Judges are independent and subject only to the Constitution and laws of Russia.”
And most of the prominent dissidents who haven’t escaped Russia are in prison. Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most famous critic, was jailed before the invasion began.
Journalist and activist critical of the government Vladimir Karamurza was sentenced in April to 25 years in prison for treason and other charges after denouncing the Russian leadership and its invasion of Ukraine. This was the harshest sentence for such an offense since February 2022.
Lawyers can be the last line of communication for protesters during lengthy trials that proceed behind closed doors.
“Lawyers will be their voice during the trial, taking information out of the prison in confidence and providing a point of contact for these prisoners to the outside world,” Karamurza’s wife, Evgenia, told Reuters.
Vadim Prokhorov, a long-time friend of Mr Karamurza’s lawyer, has also been critical of Mr Putin, but just days before Mr. escape
After leaving Russia, Prokhorov told the US government broadcaster Voice of America, “Currently in Russia there are attacks not only on journalists, but also on lawyers,” and already several lawyers. An associate was arrested, he continued.
Several Russian lawyers have come under fire from the authorities not only for defending critics of the invasion of Ukraine, but also for speaking out against it themselves.
The lawyer Dmitry Tarantov represented the well-known journalist Ivan Safronov, who is spending 22 years in prison for treason. Tarantov himself now faces a possible prison sentence of up to 10 years. He posted on Facebook that the Russian army was taking part in “very Nazi actions”.
Attorney Maria Bonzler, who participates in OVD Info, was fined twice last year. He was accused of “defaming the army” by using the word “war” in court in defense of anti-war demonstrators.
Anastasia Rudenko, a lawyer from the city of Ivanovo, north-east of Moscow, was released in June after a video she posted on her Telegram channel called “Don’t be afraid of a lawyer” was judged to have ” discredit the army”. a fine of 30,000 rubles (about 47,000 yen).
Rudenko uses his Telegram channel to update his nearly 400 subscribers on the cases he handles. One of them is a criminal case against soldiers who were injured in Ukraine and who refuse to return to the unit.
Lawyer Rudenko has family in Ukraine, but her husband and brother are soldiers in the Russian army. He took part in a number of anti-war demonstrations and handed out George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, which criticized totalitarianism, to passers-by.
“States have their own opinion and from that point of view, we should keep our opinion to ourselves,” Rudenko told Reuters.
The lawyer Rudenko does not express his opinion about the invasion of Ukraine in the video he posted. Earlier this year, he said he was shocked when authorities began investigating whether his channel contained anti-war content.
“Why are they doing this? Just to show that we are the ones with the power and that we are ready to crush them,” he said. “If you can crush it, try to crush it.”
In interviews, some young lawyers without much experience in the Russian judicial system said that they had decided to represent anti-war activists, but that they felt the task was very tiring.
Yuri Mikhailov, a 25-year-old public defender in the Moscow region, joined OVD Info at the beginning of March last year.
Most of our clients have been arrested for minor protests. One man said that a year after the invasion began, he wrote “365 days no” on snow in a park in Moscow.
But Mikhailov’s clients include ordinary citizens who “did their jobs” in public places. He said he was arrested only because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I can make a persuasive argument against the judge saying ‘2×2=4’, and the other party can nod. But in the end, the verdict will be ‘2×2=5’.”
Before the invasion of Ukraine, St Petersburg lawyer Gominova mainly dealt with civil cases ranging from family disputes to consumer rights advocacy. While some of her acquaintances consider her a traitor, most of her friends and relatives say they care about her and are proud of her.
“Sometimes I walk out of court very angry and feel a surge of strength to keep fighting. Other times, I close the court door and burst into helpless tears,” said the lawyer. Gominova.
“As long as there is power in me, I will stay in Russia.”
(Reporter Lucy Papachristou, translation by Eaklelen)
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