MOSCOW (Reuters) - Viktor Parshutkin knows the occupational hazards of being a Russian defense lawyer: long hours, stress, and the risk of imprisonment in a jail so overcrowded the inmates have to sleep in shifts.
Parshutkin, 47, was held for three years in Moscow’s notorious Butyrka prison while he awaited trial on charges — eventually dropped — linked to a case in which he was defending a couple against the Russian adoption authorities.
He and fellow lawyers allege that not only does the Russian state manipulate the justice system to go after its opponents but it also persecutes lawyers hired to defend those opponents in court.
“Any lawyer who does not cut a deal with the authorities, and defends his client’s interests on the basis of the law, will one or another way be subject to persecution,” said Parshutkin.
In the latest high-profile case, the state security service has charged Boris Kuznetsov, a lawyer defending a member of parliament from charges of corruption, with disclosing state secrets. The lawyer says he is the victim of an official vendetta and has fled the country.
But that is not an isolated incident. Dozens of others have been subject to criminal prosecution or had to fight off official applications to strip them of their right to practice.
“Lawyers ... are viewed as fair game,” said Robert Amsterdam, who has been barred from entering Russia over his role as part of the legal team for jailed tycoon and Kremlin opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
“Any professional groups that are independent and outside the control of the authorities in (President Vladimir) Putin’s Russia are viewed as a threat,” said Amsterdam.
Reuters sent a written request to Russian prosecutors for comment on allegations lawyers were being unfairly targeted, but they offered no comment.
Some of the accusations leveled against Russian lawyers can seem tenuous. Kseniya Kostromina was part of a team of four lawyers defending Alexei Pichugin, head of security for Khodorkovsky, from murder charges.
She and two other lawyers missed a hearing because she had to appear before the Constitutional court and the others were ill. They sent their apologies, but a judge applied to have them disbarred.
The application was turned down. “It seems that they were ... trying to frighten us,” said Kostromina.
Prosecutors also applied to the Moscow Bar Association to have Karina Moskalenko, a senior member of the Khordorkovsky defense team, stripped of her right to practice as a lawyer.
The grounds for the complaint was that she had not applied to see Khodorkovsky in his Siberian prison.
But she said other members of the defense team were visiting him there, while she was preparing his application to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. “This is a game to deprive him of his lawyers,” she said.
Moskalenko said the Russian authorities were undermining a central principle of justice: that defendants are entitled to a competent defense.
“Across the whole world it is well known that lawyers who are carrying out their professional activities cannot be subjected to pressure,” she said. “But it seems to me that today’s Russian authorizes are not driven by logic.”
Other lawyers said the practice of targeting lawyers was already having a damaging effect on Russian justice.
“When a lawyer is afraid of unpleasantness, he tones down his defense, he steps back,” said Parshutkin. “We see this left right and centre in Russia. There are very few lawyers who are prepared to give their clients a worthy defense.”