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Lawyer Sofia Gominova poses for a picture in central Saint Petersburg, Russia, on June 28 2023. Picture: REUTERS/ANTON VAGANOV
Lawyer Sofia Gominova poses for a picture in central Saint Petersburg, Russia, on June 28 2023. Picture: REUTERS/ANTON VAGANOV

Sofia Gominova wanted to be a lawyer from age 11. Born after the fall of the Soviet Union, she grew up in a Russia blighted by organised crime and watched police dramas on TV, wanting to “fight evil like they did”.

Now, at 29, Gominova believes she is doing just that. Among a new cadre of young lawyers outraged by suppression of dissent, she has joined OVD-Info, one of Russia’s biggest legal defence groups that supports thousands detained for opposing the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“I have always had a keen sense of justice,” Gominova told a Reuters reporter based in Poland. “I realised that a lot of injustice is created by the hands of the system ... that violates the rights of citizens, illegally arrests them, inflicts physical damage, and issues absurd decisions and decrees.”

As protests against last year’s invasion broke out, Gominova found herself waiting in freezing weather for hours in St Petersburg to be let into court, then dashing from room to room as dozens of cases of arrested demonstrators were processed. Arriving home exhausted, she would start work on appeals.

“Defending protesters in court is my version of protest,” said Gominova, who began representing anti-war activists in court almost immediately after the invasion.

Russian authorities say they are applying the law legitimately against troublemakers encouraged by the West to destroy their nation. They deny abuse of detainees and have sometimes cast human rights lawyers as public enemies.

Defending Kremlin critics comes with considerable risks in wartime Russia, where even schoolchildren and pensioners have been punished for dissenting over the war. Some lawyers have been prosecuted for speaking out against the invasion, dozens have been stripped of licences, and several prominent attorneys have fled the country.

Despite the risks, 120 lawyers have joined OVD-Info since the invasion — three times the number who have left Russia — swelling its ranks to 442, according to Violetta Fitsner, a lawyer and spokesperson for the group. With numerous civil society groups disbanded by the state, many other lawyers also defend anti-war activists independently, but it is hard to determine how many.

The St Petersburg Bar Association said 222 lawyers had joined since last March, bringing its total to 4,692, but said it did not have information on how many defend activists. It said seven of the new lawyers have since had their memberships suspended or discontinued, without citing reasons.

The Moscow Bar Association did not reply to a request for data.

Acquittals rare

Acquittals in Russian courts are extremely rare overall, and critics say the country's justice system is highly politicised. Yet legal advocates play a vital role in publicising the crackdown, which by OVD-Info's count has seen nearly 20,000 people detained for anti-war activism since last February.

Russia’s interior ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the detentions.

Asked about courts’ independence, the judicial department of the supreme court said: “Judges are independent and subject only to the constitution of the Russian Federation and the law.”

Most high-profile opposition figures who have not already fled Russia are now in prison. Alexei Navalny, Putin’s most prominent critic, was jailed before the invasion.

In April, Vladimir Kara-Murza was sentenced to 25 years in prison for treason after he condemned Russia’s leadership and the war in Ukraine. The term was the harshest of its kind since February, 2022.

Lawyers are sometimes protesters’ last communication conduit during lengthy trials held behind closed doors.

“Lawyers continue being their voices, being these prisoners’ connection to the world outside,” Evgenia Kara-Murza, wife of Vladimir, said. Her husband’s lawyer and longtime friend Vadim Prokhorov — a critic of Putin — fled Russia days before his client’s sentencing out of concern he too might face a criminal case.

“Right now in Russia, an attack is being waged not only against journalists but also against lawyers,” Prokhorov told US broadcaster Voice of America after he left Russia, adding that several of his colleagues had already been arrested.

Several Russian lawyers have attracted the attention — and condemnation — of authorities, not only for defending critics of the invasion but also for expressing their own opposition.

‘Nazi practices’

Dmitry Talantov, whose former client, the prominent journalist Ivan Safronov, is serving a 22-year sentence for treason, faces up to 10 years in prison himself after he wrote on Facebook that Russian forces were engaging in “extreme Nazi practices”.

Maria Bontsler, who has worked with OVD-Info, was fined twice last year for “discrediting the army” after she uttered the word “war” in court while defending anti-war protesters.

Anastasia Rudenko, a lawyer in Ivanovo, a city northeast of Moscow, was fined 30,000 roubles ($355) in June for “discrediting the army” in videos posted to her Telegram channel entitled “It’s not so scary with a lawyer.”

She uses the channel to inform about 400 subscribers of her trials, which include a criminal case against a soldier wounded in Ukraine who refuses to return to active duty.

Rudenko, who has family in Ukraine but whose husband and brother are both soldiers in the Russian armed forces, attended anti-war rallies and handed out copies of George Orwell’s dystopian and anti-authoritarian novel 1984 to passers-by.

“The state has its own opinion, and from its point of view we must keep our opinions to ourselves,” she said.

Rudenko, who does not explicitly state her views on the war in her videos, said she was shocked when authorities launched a review of her channel for anti-war content earlier this year.

“Why are they doing this? I think just to show: we are all-powerful, we will destroy you,” she said. “Well, go ahead, destroy me.”

Snow protest

In interviews, some younger lawyers with fewer years of experience of Russia’s justice system said they were determined to represent anti-war dissenters but found the work exhausting.

Yuri Mikhailov, a 25-year-old public defender in the Moscow region, joined OVD-Info early in March last year. Most of his clients have been arrested for small acts of protest, such as one man who wrote “365 NO” in the snow in a Moscow park on the one-year anniversary of the invasion.

But Mikhailov has also defended ordinary citizens “going about their business” in public places, who were arrested, he said, simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. “I can argue persuasively to the judge that two times two is four — and he may even nod his head. But in the end he decides two times two is five.”

Before the Ukraine conflict, Gominova, in St Petersburg, worked mainly on civil cases ranging from family disputes to consumer rights. While a few acquaintances consider her a traitor, she said, most friends and relatives are proud, albeit worried for her.

“Sometimes I leave court with such anger that I feel a great surge of strength to keep fighting. Other times, I close the courtroom door and tears flow from helplessness,” she said. “As long as I have the strength inside me, I will remain in Russia.” 


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