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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Neo-Soviet Attack on Lawyers Continues Apace

An editorial in Vedemosti, via the Moscow Times, shows how the cowardly cohorts of the Kremlin are attacking the attorneys of dissidents just as was done in Soviet times:

Lawyer Boris Kuznetsov fled Russia after Moscow's Tverskoi District Court initiated a criminal case on Wednesday, charging him with the disclosure of state secrets. How could the lawyer have gained access to state secrets? The intelligence services and prosecutor's office believe that Kuznetsov violated the law by copying and distributing secret wiretap recordings of his client, former Federation Council Senator Levon Chakhmakhchyan.

Having copied the wiretap records, Kuznetsov sent a copy of the tapes by mail to the Constitutional Court. There, employees -- who had no security clearance -- were able to analyze the material in the tapes and make them available to journalists.

Kuznetsov and his defense team point to Article 7 of the law regarding state secrets: "Information regarding the violation of a citizen's rights and freedom shall not be regarded as classified." Nonetheless, the district court made the decision about the purported criminal nature of Kuznetsov's actions in two weeks. Moreover, even before the district court's decision, authorities demanded that Kuznetsov sign a statement that prohibited him from disclosing facts of the case. This means that the authorities deliberately intended to classify the information on the tapes.

"The Kuznetsov Affair" is a fairly typical case. But it also represents a significant development because law enforcement agencies have recently intensified their battle against high-profile lawyers. Kuznetsov is one of them. This is how Kuznetsov articulated his credo: "If the evidence of innocence is located in a pile of crap and my hands are tied, I will obtain the evidence with my teeth."

He fights to defend the rights of people whom the government has already predetermined to be guilty -- for example, the scientist Igor Sutyagin and the founder of The Educated Media Foundation, Manana Aslamazian. Kuznetsov also investigated sensitive cases that the government has been trying to forget -- for example, the reasons why the Kursk submarine sank in 2000, killing 118 sailors. In 2005, Kuznetsov published his findings in the book "It Sank: The Truth That Prosecutor General Ustinov Concealed About Kursk." He also filed with the European Court of Human Rights the complaints of family members of sailors who died in the Kursk accident.

As a rule, there were previous attempts to remove lawyers from sensitive cases or revoke their licenses under fabricated pretexts. This was exactly the situation with the lawyers defending Yukos and with Karina Moskalenko, who represented Russian plaintiffs against the government in Strasbourg.

After being confronted with the corporate solidarity of lawyers, the intelligence services have resorted to initiating seemingly absurd cases against them. But these cases have very sharp teeth and threaten lawyers with the real risk of serious punishment. Kuznetsov could receive up to four years in prison (up to seven years under aggravated conditions) and a three-year prohibition against practicing law.

The KGB took similar measures in the 1970s and 1980s against lawyers who defended dissidents. The battle against lawyers is counterproductive because it undermines the authority of the entire judicial system. This could very well mean that an even higher number of cases will be sent to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg by Russians claiming that they have been denied their right of legal defense at home.

Authorities should remember that Russian defendants, who have become victims of persecution as a result of clan struggles or the fight for the ownership of property, will turn to "kamikaze lawyers" such as Kuznetsov who are not afraid of fighting against the system.

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