The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) condemns the arbitrary detention and criminal prosecution of three lawyers who had been defending the prominent opposition figure, Alexei Navalny.
“These criminal proceedings, constituting persecution of lawyers, severely compromise the administration of justice in Russia and undermine the ability of all lawyers to defend their clients’ human rights and uphold the rule of law”, said Temur Shakirov, interim Director of ICJ Europe and Central Asia Programme.
On 13 October 2023, Vadim Kobzev, Alexey Liptser and Igor Sergunin – who had been acting as Navalny’s defence lawyers — were arrested and detained at Basmanny District Court in Moscow on charges of purportedly participating in an “extremist community”, with a potential sentence of up to six years’ imprisonment if convicted. As such, the criminal proceedings against Vadim Kobzev, Alexey Liptser and Igor Sergunin amount to persecution.
The charges are reportedly based on accusations that the three lawyers facilitated Navalny’s communication with the outside world while in detention.
Moreover, another lawyer representing Navalny, Alexander Fedulov, apparently fearing being arrested, was forced to flee the country following the arrest of his three colleagues.
The arrest and detention of the three lawyers and Fedulov’s flight significantly disrupt Navalny’s ability to defend himself through the assistance of qualified, independent legal counsel of choice, and his ability to challenge the criminal convictions and sentences, which led to his detention since 2022 as a result of a series of criminal cases against him widely believed to be politically motivated.
“The detention of Navalny’s lawyers is likely to constitute part of a wider strategy to isolate him even further. Moreover, it sends a chilling message to anyone wishing to defend human rights and political activism”, said Shakirov. “This is contrary to the right of lawyers to practise their profession freely, and it denies Navalny his right to legal representation, a fair trial guarantee protected under international human rights law binding on the Russian Federation”.
The ICJ stresses that the harassment and arbitrary detention of lawyers contravene the Russian Federation’s obligations under international law, including under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers. They affirm the crucial role of lawyers in upholding the rule of law and protecting human rights. It is crucial to ensure that lawyers can perform their legitimate professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment, or improper interference, as guaranteed under the Basic Principle on the Role of Lawyers.
“The ICJ calls on the Russian Federation: to immediately stop this flagrant violation of the guarantees afforded to lawyers under international human rights law; for an end to these persecutory criminal proceedings; for all charges against Vadim Kobzev, Alexey Liptser and Igor Sergunin to be dropped; and for them to be immediately released”, added Shakirov.
Furthermore, the ICJ urges the Russian authorities to cease the persecution and harassment of lawyers and to take steps to ensure a safe environment where lawyers can operate without fear of reprisal for their work.
According to the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, governments must ensure that lawyers are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference and must not face sanctions for discharging their duties in accordance with professional standards and ethics (Principle 16). Furthermore, lawyers must not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions. (Principle 18).
The UN Basic Principles also specify that lawyers like others have a right to freedom of expression and in particular the right to take part in public discussion of matters concerning the law, the administration of justice and the promotion and protection of human rights” (Principle 23)
The arrest of the three lawyers has prompted a call for a strike within the Russian legal community to demonstrate against the hostile environment within which lawyers in the Russian Federation operate, particularly those defending human rights and representing political activists.