In Russia, Prosecutors Target Defense Attorneys
Sunday, August 14, 2005
YEKATERINBURG, Russia -- On June 6, police from this city's organized crime unit met Svetlana Zayets as she stepped off a train. Seven officers demanded that she accompany them to the prosecutor's office for questioning about an alleged criminal gang, telling her they had orders to bring her in by force if necessary, Zayets recalled.
Zayets, however, was not a suspect in the case or accused of any criminal activity. She was the prime suspect's lawyer.
By the simple tactic of calling her in for interrogation, the prosecutor's office removed her from the case. Russian law states that a witness in a case cannot also act as an attorney in the case.
For prosecutors, Zayets had been a troublesome foe in her six years of representing Ravil Khakimov, the owner of 17 car dealerships. In an interview, she said she successfully defended him in multiple investigations involving charges of assault, hooliganism, extortion, tax evasion and illegal entrepreneurship. Now, he is accused of organizing a criminal group and has been held in a pretrial detention center since December.
Zayets's removal from the case, which she has appealed, is part of a widening attack on defense attorneys in Russia and the principle that what passes between a lawyer and a client in the preparation of a case is privileged information, according to the Federal Bar Chamber, Russia's bar association, and the Independent Council of Legal Experts, an advocacy group of lawyers and academics.
Many lawyers fear that the state is intent on dominating the work of defense attorneys as it does judges and prosecutors.
"We are seeing more and more pressure on defense lawyers who are only doing their jobs," said Yuri Pilipenko, vice president of the bar chamber. The organization is asking its regional affiliates to report incidents so it can comprehensively document the practice.
The Russian Department of Justice has proposed legislation that would end attorney-client privilege and bring the self-governing bar under state control. The draft measure would give the state the right to demand "information which the lawyers obtain while providing legal assistance to their clients, including information on specific cases."
The legislation would also allow the state to have "direct control, as well as control via its territorial branches, over the activities of lawyers, law firms, and bar associations." The state would have the right to "demand the disbarring of a lawyer."
Officials at the Justice Ministry declined to comment on the draft legislation. The president of the Federal Bar Chamber said the measure, if enacted, would amount to a return to Soviet-style control.
The proposal is so wide-reaching that it has unsettled even some of President Vladimir Putin's supporters.
"We can't talk about independent courts or independent judiciary," Andrei Makarov, a member of parliament from the United Russia party, which generally backs the Kremlin, said in an interview with a Russian newspaper.