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 it.
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 on 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.
"A state agency by definition cannot control and monitor the work of the bar because the lawyers' main job is to protect clients from the state and the state bodies of prosecution," Makarov continued. He said Russia should be proud of the independence of the bar.
Even though the legislation has not been passed, police and prosecutors are increasingly demanding that attorneys submit to questioning about their clients, and are then using that as a justification for forcing them off cases.
Another attorney for Khakimov, the car dealer, was cut from the case after he was detained for questioning while waiting to speak to his client at the Yekaterinburg detention center. The Federal Bar Chamber has detailed similar cases in Moscow and in the Rostov-on-Don, Khabarovsk and Kirov regions.
Across the country, authorities have raided law offices, searched lawyers and seized documents, according to the bar chamber. Investigators have secretly recorded deliberations between lawyers, clients and witnesses in criminal cases, the chamber alleges.
"There is an attitude of contempt for the work of defense lawyers," said Yuri Kostanov, a member of the Independent Council of Legal Experts and the commission that qualifies and disciplines lawyers. "It seems like the state wants to force the bar to its knees."
Pressure on defense attorneys was especially intense and public in the state's judicial assault on Yukos Oil Co. and its founder, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was sentenced to nine years in prison in June on tax evasion and fraud charges.
In October 2003, authorities raided the offices of Khodorkovsky's lead attorney, Anton Drel, and seized documents. Prison officials have searched lawyers visiting Khodorkovsky and confiscated documents from them.
Bar officials cite other cases: The law offices of Yustina, another Moscow firm, were raided in December 2004. Similar raids were conducted in 2004 in the cities of Voronezh, south of Moscow, and Tyumen in Siberia. In Tyumen, the apartments of attorneys and the offices of the local bar association were also searched. Police seized case-related materials, phone books and the personal files of lawyers.
Zayets, a longtime criminal defense lawyer, has a reputation for blowing holes in prosecution cases, according to Igor V. Mikhailovich, head of the local bar association. "She is a brilliant lawyer with 30 years of experience," Mikhailovich said. "As far as I know, the charges are very weak and the prosecutors are not very efficient and are unable to prove their charges with legitimate tools. I think their ultimate goal was to neutralize lawyers who are very effective."
Backed by the bar chamber and human rights groups, Zayets is appealing her removal from the case. She is arguing that the maneuver to separate her from her client was illegal and violated the principle of attorney-client privilege, which is enshrined in Russian law. Zayets said she refused to answer investigators' questions.
The prosecutor's office said it wasn't prepared to comment on the case.
A local district court rejected Zayets's motions to be reinstated. A higher-level appeal is now pending. Khakimov, meanwhile, is working with another set of attorneys.
"My husband wants to be defended by his lawyer, by Svetlana," said Natalya Sibiryakova, Khakimov's wife. "If we have a rule-of-law state, that should be his right."
Zayets said she feared that even if she won her appeals, the rulings might not come in time for her to defend Khakimov.
"If prosecutors can question a lawyer about her legal work for a client, then there is not only no attorney-client privilege, there is no bar," Zayets said. "There is only the state. I'm afraid that that's what some people want."