MOSCOW Boris Kuznetsov made his name defending people who fell foul of the Russian state.
Now he has fled Russia after a court sanctioned his arrest for revealing state secrets. Moscow prosecutors have since opened a criminal case against him.
Kuznetsov told Reuters this week from a European location, which he refused to name, that he was the latest victim of a crackdown on lawyers under President Vladimir Putin.
Prosecutors in 2005 unsuccessfully called for the defense team of imprisoned former oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky to be stripped of their status as lawyers for trying to "ruin" an appeal hearing.
Kuznetsov said the moves by prosecutors against him were "revenge" for daring to take on powerful people in law enforcement agencies and the Federal Security Service (FSB) in particular. A spokesman for the FSB declined to comment.
"Lawyers are the last bastion before Russian lawlessness which is flourishing in the absence of a normally functioning and independent judicial system," Kuznetsov said.
"Those lawyers who are not silent, those lawyers who refuse to submit, those lawyers who have a humanitarian position, those lawyers who defend people are made to feel uncomfortable."
Kuznetsov became one of Russia's best known lawyers by acting for politicians, scientists and ordinary people in sensitive cases where he has often clashed with officialdom.
He acted for the family of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered last October, and the local head of the Internews media charity Manana Aslamazyan, who left Russia in April after being accused of smuggling.
Kuznetsov also represented the families of sailors who perished on the Kursk nuclear submarine in 2000. He tried, unsuccessfully, to overturn an official probe of the sinking.
LAWYERS ON DEFENSIVE
Some top lawyers have complained of coming under pressure for defending clients against the state and security services.
Kuznetsov said blaming the Kremlin was too simplistic. He said that the atmosphere was being set by former secret service men who think they can act with impunity under Putin.
"I don't think there was any order from the Kremlin to put pressure on lawyers. I just don't believe that," he said.
"There are some people from the special services, in the law enforcement agencies, who think that if the president is a former KGB officer then they can do what ever they want."
Kuznetzov's latest case, the defense of former federation council senator Levon Chakhmakhchyan, landed him in trouble because he provided evidence and details of phone bugging to the constitutional court.
Prosecutors said he had breached the law on state secrets. Kuznetsov said state secrets cease to be secrets if they disclose a violation of human rights or abuse of office.
"They want to get me out of a load of cases where the FSB has some sort of relationship," Kuznetsov said.
"The other reason is revenge, revenge for the Sutyagin case," he said, referring to Igor Sutyagin, a Russian scientist he defended. Sutyagin was found guilty of passing classified military information to a British firm.
Genri Reznik, the head of the Bar Association, told Reuters the case against Kuznetsov did not stack up in law.
"This is either revenge... or it is stupidity -- it is wild from a legal point of view," Reznik said.
"Or the spooks who initiated this know something that we don't know and have been given the all clear to act outside the law."