Recently two lawyers, in different parts of Russia, who have been working on politically motivated criminal investigations, have themselves been subjected to unlawful pressure from law enforcement officials — pressure that has little to do with the principles of the law.
In Krasnodar the well-known lawyer Mikhail Benyash was assaulted and initially charged and jailed for the offence, under administrative law, of failing to obey police instructions on 9 September 2018 (allegedly, despite their instructions, causing himself physical injury). Subsequently, Benyash was charged with the criminal offence of using force against police officers, and was remanded in custody, having served the jail term for the administrative offence. We believe there were no lawful grounds for the initial jailing of Benyash, a sentence imposed on him for his activity as a lawyer. Benyash had been preparing to go to a police station to defend protesters, who had hired him to act for them, who had been unlawfully detained at a rally against the increase in the pensionable age. Prior to this, Benyash had been threatened that he would be arrested if he was present in downtown Krasnodar on the day of the protest. The police, explaining the physical injuries to the lawyer’s face and body, mockingly said that he had beaten his own head against the window of the police vehicle. Court decisions in relation to M. Benyash were adopted with flagrant violations, and there were no reasonable grounds to remand Benyash in custody.
A similar incident recently took place in Barnaul where a preliminary police investigation is currently underway in relation to the lawyer Roman Ozhmegov. Ozhmegov is defending three persons — Mariya Motuznaya, Andrei Shasherin and Anton Angel — who have been charged under Article 282, Section 1, of the Russian Criminal Code at the instigation of the local anti-extremism police department in a case concerning reposts on a social media website. There are no reasonable grounds for the charges laid. The lawyer Ozhmegov was at first threatened with criminal prosecution if he continued to work on these cases. Subsequently, after the authorities tried to put one of Ozhmegov’s defendants, Anton Angel, unlawfully in a psychiatric hospital, using force against both him and his lawyer, four detectives made a complaint under Article 318 (concerning use of force, or threat of the use of force, against a public official) against Ozhmegov.
These two instances, in particular the prosecution of Mikhail Benyash, are shocking in themselves as examples of the lack of rights of citizens with regard to the police. Unfortunately, standing the law on its head in this manner and transforming the victims of unlawful police violence into defendants charged under Article 318 of the Russian Criminal Code, and subsequently convicting them of such an offence, is an absolutely unacceptable, but, nonetheless, widespread practice in our country.
Moreover, unlawful behaviour of this kind against lawyers is particularly dangerous since it infringes on the independence of lawyers, and the right of citizens to legal defence and to access to qualified legal assistance. The fabrication of criminal cases against lawyers for the purposes of hindering their professional work undermines the very foundation of the justice system in this country.
It is vital that these individual precedents are not allowed to develop into a general trend. We urge the public to show solidarity with those lawyers who have been victims of unlawful pressure and prosecution.
Memorial Human Rights Centre calls for the immediate release of the lawyer M. Benyash and an end to the politically motivated prosecution of lawyers. Those persons complicit in the organisation and conduct of prosecutions of this kind must be brought to justice.
Memorial has supported, and will continue to support, all lawyers, legal professionals and human rights defenders, who have fallen victim to unlawful actions by the authorities.