Russia’s lawyers are caught in the tentacles of official criminality

The financial meltdown in Cyprus has re-surfaced longstanding allegations that Russian mafia money has been laundered through Cypriot bank accounts, converting cash from criminal sources into gleaming super-yachts in Limassol Marina.

It’s another apparent instance of Russian criminality stretching its tentacles into all manner of unlikely locations. After the infamous Litvinenko case and the murky death of the Russian businessman Alexander Perepilichnyy in Surrey last year, it’s obvious that one tentacle extends to the UK. The main threat, though, is in Russia itself - to “uncooperative” business people, investigative journalists, human rights activists and other “targets”.

What’s particularly worrying is the way that elements within the Russian authorities and the contract killers seem to be working together. The notorious murder of Anna Politkovskaya - and in subsequent years of her erstwhile colleagues, the lawyers Stanislav Markelov and Natalia Estemirova - all point to the involvement of the security forces.

Lawyers are another at-risk group, a point emphasised in a new 58-page Amnesty report. To take just one of numerous cases, here’s what happened on the evening of 15 December 2011 to the Chechen criminal defence lawyer Magamed Abubakarov, a veteran of frontline legal work in the North Caucasus currently working in Kabardino-Balkaria republic. He was driving his car when a police patrol pulled him over. Police officers, including several pointing guns and one wearing a mask, made him go to the back of the car demanding that he open the boot. The next moment another vehicle suddenly slammed into Abubakarov at high speed, seriously injuring him (one leg was badly crushed, the other fractured, he spent months in hospital). When he later started asking questions about the police inquiry into the incident he got the run-around, with unconvincing stuff about how the other car hadn’t broken any traffic regulations.

A freak accident and slack policing? Maybe. But bear in mind that Abubakarov is known for taking on clients accused of terrorist offences in a region where the authorities view such lawyers as quasi-traitors. More recently Abubakarov’s been getting hostile text messages which, when he reported them to the police, saw him getting a further threat: “the time to … [talk] is over. … [you will be talking] in a mortuary”. More on Abukakarov here.

Interestingly, Abubakarov originally began to receive threats back in 2007 after he took on the case of Rasul Kudaev, a former Guantánamo prisoner who’s allegedly suffered torture at the hands of local officials since being re-detained in Russia. (Kudaev’s life seems to have become a total horror story of arrest and alleged beatings and the denial of medical care in detention since he got out of Guantánamo. See here and here).

The point is this: if you’re brave/foolhardy enough to take on powerful vested interests in Russia - including law-enforcement bodies which themselves operate something like self-interested entities - you will likely run some serious risks. Lawyers, a potential bulwark against an over-mighty state, face a legal system run largely on the principle that anything less than a conviction is a failure. Russia’s Federal Bar Association had noted that in 2007 the lower-level courts acquitted defendants in just 0.8% of all the judgements they passed.  Meanwhile, lawyers in Dagestan have even gone on strike to protest against a constant pattern of threats, insults and physical attacks from police officers.

As the very different examples of the Pussy Riot case and the recent sinister posthumous trial of the auditor-lawyer Sergei Magnitsky demonstrate, there’s currently something very wrong with Russian justice. The Observer journalist Mark Townsend suggests that the deaths of Magnitsky in a Russian jail cell in 2009 and Perepilichnyy’s death while jogging in a leafy Surrey town last year may be connected - both individuals were linked to an alleged £144m tax fraud. In short, then, Russian killers have certainly been at work in Britain, while mafia wealth is almost certainly sloshing around Cypriot bank accounts.

If Russian lawyers get in the way of any of this, and if they try to represent those accused or terrorism in places like the North Caucasus, they themselves become the targets.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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