Today marks the International Day of the Endangered Lawyer. Organized by a network of national and international legal organizations and bar associations and already in its 14th year, the day’s focus this year is on lawyers in Iran, where such human rights defenders clearly are under enormous pressure. All lawyers need to be protected so they can work in an environment free from pressure and intimidation from autocratic governments. If lawyers are not protected, their clients inadvertently suffer too. The lawyers working on cases of political prisoners tend to become an obvious and immediate target for repressive governments, in order to pressure and isolate the defendants even more.

On this day, though, I also want to draw attention to the lawyers working on the cases of political prisoners in Russia and Belarus. I am one of them. I know from first-hand experience that, in addition to legal assistance, lawyers of political prisoners help them maintain connections with the outside world, even from the middle of Siberia or above the Arctic Circle. It gives those defendants a chance to have their cases heard in court and brought to public attention, even in autocracies like Russia and Belarus. 

Since 1999, I have worked on many sensitive cases of well-known opposition figures, human rights defenders, and political prisoners. My clients in Russia have included famed opposition leader Boris Nemtsov before he was assassinated near the Kremlin in 2015, jailed activist Ilya Yashin, the late dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, and Washington Post columnist and Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza.

The case of Vladimir Kara-Murza is the most recent case I worked on and the reason why I was forced to flee my country. Vladimir is a Russian political prisoner, a prominent opposition figure, a human rights defender, and a loving father of three. He had been poisoned twice and continuously harassed by the Russian state because of his human rights work and political activities. On April 11, 2022, after he again insisted on returning to his homeland after treatment abroad because he felt that was the most genuine way for him to have an impact, the Russian authorities arrested and charged him with “high treason,” eventually sentencing him to prison for 25 years. I started to represent him immediately after his detention.

Threats to Arrest the Lawyer Too

In March-April 2023, when I defended Vladimir during the trial of his criminal case in the Moscow City Court, I received repeated threats from State Prosecutor Boris Loktionov and presiding Judge Sergei Podoprigorov, who warned that they would initiate criminal proceedings against me. Podoprigorov was already by that time under U.S. sanctions under the 2012 Magnitsky Act, named after a Russian lawyer who was arrested after uncovering government fraud and died in prison. Podoprigorov was the judge who ordered Magnitsky’s arrest, and Vladimir had been instrumental in advocating for the passage of the Magnitsky Act.

Another reason for the threats was the fact that I communicated with the public about the progress of Vladimir’s trial. At the end of each court hearing, I publicly commented on the details of the trial proceedings to the representatives of the diplomatic corps, media, and political activists gathered in the courthouse. By doing that, I drew attention to Podoprigorov’s conflict of interest that should have required him to recuse himself from the case.

On the night of April 6, 2023, just days before Vladimir’s final sentencing hearing, I received another threat. I realized then that I would have to leave Russia or become the target of criminal proceedings and indefinite imprisonment. 

Of course, I am not the only lawyer who is punished for representing political prisoners in Russia. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s lawyers were punished as a result of their professional activities too. Vadim Kobzev, Igor Sergunin, and Alexei Liptser were arrested in Russia in October 2023 and charged with participating in an extremist group. On Dec. 7, a Moscow court ordered that they be detained until at least March 13, 2024, pending an ongoing investigation. A fourth lawyer for Navalny, Olga Mikhailova, who was traveling at the time, was charged in absentia just last week with the same trumped-up allegations.

Another recent example is the case of Aleksey Ladin, a Russian human rights defender and lawyer. Since 2015, Aleksey has been working to provide legal aid to Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians who have been persecuted on politically motivated charges by Russian authorities in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. In 2017, Aleksey moved from Tumen, a city in Russia, to Crimea in order to be closer to his clients. There, in October 2023, Aleksey was detained for two weeks for “spreading extremist materials.”  Ironically, today on the International Day of the Endangered Lawyer, Aleksey is facing a disciplinary hearing in the Council of the Tyumen Regional Bar Association related to his October detention — Russia’s Ministry of Justice alleges that Ladin violated the Code of Ethics of the Russian Federal Bar Association.

Belarus and Beyond

As the Iran situation shows, lawyers working on the cases of political prisoners in many other countries are facing similar risks. In Belarus, for example, some of the lawyers facing persecution were recognized as political prisoners themselves. Maxim Znak, Anastasia Lazarenko, Vitaly Braginets, and Alexander Danilevich are all imprisoned for six to 10 years each, 34 years between them, for doing their jobs – representing clients in the aftermath of Belarus’s fraudulent 2020 presidential election that resulted in massive street protests for months amid a brutal crackdown that ultimately resulted in the imprisonment of thousands of Belarusians and exile for opposition leaders who weren’t already in jail. Overall, the post-election pressure, harassment, detention, and disbarment of Belarusian lawyers shows a troubling picture of penalizing lawyers for doing their jobs. Unfortunately, this trend continues today: more than 128 Belarusian lawyers have been disbarred, harassed, detained or forced to leave the country. 

Although I was lucky and was able to escape detention and imprisonment, other brave lawyers remain in Russia, Belarus, Iran, and too many other autocracies, continuing their difficult work under near-unrelenting threats. The international community, governments, and others with influence and a stake in rule of law and human rights worldwide can do so much to support all lawyers defending rights, including those representing political prisoners.

States should support an initiative by the Council of Europe to develop and adopt a European convention on lawyers in order to provide better protection for the profession. In the United States, the Biden administration and Congress should provide more assistance to nonprofit organizations that support individual lawyers and their families who fled their countries under threat of persecution with help on relocation issues, visas, advocacy, and work on projects assisting other lawyers and human rights defenders. The international community also should support the brave lawyers who are remaining inside these repressive countries by monitoring their situations closely, communicating with them directly, and letting them know that they are not alone.

Without lawyers, political prisoners would suffer even more, and they would do so in obscurity.

(Readers may also be interested in this Just Security Podcast episode featuring the author and Kara-Murza’s wife, Evgenia Kara-Murza, “Russia’s Political Prisoners and Their Lawyers: Vladimir Kara-Murza’s Case Highlights the Risks,” and these articles published on last year’s International Day of the Endangered Lawyer: Lawyers Under Threat: Highlighting Their Plight by Jasmine Cameron and Afghan Lawyers on Rule of Law’s Frontlines Need Urgent International Support by Meg Satterthwaite and Richard Bennett.)

IMAGE: Russian opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza sits on a bench inside a defendants’ cage during a hearing at the Basmanny court in Moscow on October 10, 2022. Kara-Murza was jailed in April 2022 for denouncing the Kremlin’s Ukraine offensive and was charged with high treason. (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images)