Law Society seeks answers over Russia’s persecution of lawyers

Russia has changed dramatically since the days of the Soviet Union. However, some areas have made little progress, and among them is the rule of law.

Although sensitive to criticism on the issue, the Russian establishment does not take kindly to those who seek to limit its power, and recent years have seen the disappearance or imprisonment of numerous lawyers who have challenged those in power.

Among them is the deputy general counsel for oil giant Yukos, Svetlana Bakhmina, who has been held in custody since 7 December 2004. Arrested with other senior staff in the organisation, Bakhmina has had no contact with her two children and, in protest at the authorities’ refusal to let her phone them, went on hunger strike in March last year.

Lawyer Mikhail Ivanovich Trepashkin was arrested in October 2003, a week before he was due to appear in court representing relatives of one the people killed in the 1999 Moscow bombings.

A consultant for the Kovalev Commission in 2002, which investigated the bombings, Trepashkin was earlier indicted for revealing classified information during the investigation, which he was alleged to have gained during his years working at the KGB/FSB (the Russian federal security service). However, the case was reactivated after his findings were quoted in a book, which suggested that Russian officials, not Chechen insurgents, were responsible for the bombings.

After appealing to the Supreme Court, Trepashkin won an indefinite postponement of the case on 15 October 2003. His arrest just a week later was on different charges: possession and transportation of an illegal weapon, which, third-party sources say, was in a bag thrown into the car by FSB agents. Protests from the Law Society and others have been to no avail, and Trepashkin was sentenced to two years imprisonment at Dmitrov Town Court in April 2005 after a trial in which the prosecution changed its explanation of where the gun was found, the defence had limited access to documents and the
court refused to hear the testimonies of key defence witnesses.

Combined with a decision by Moscow District Military Court on the earlier charge of revealing classified information, Trepashkin will serve for a total of five years.

The Law Society has since been advised that Trepashkin is being denied adequate medical treatment for his severe bronchial asthma and that he is being subjected to “cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment” in an effort to intimidate him into withdrawing his complaints relating to his criminal conviction and his treatment while a prisoner.

The Russian Federation did not make anyone available for comment.