Russian Lawyers Claim Kremlin Abuses

Exhibit A: Boris Kuznetsov, who has won U.S. asylum after Russian authorities threatened prosecution.

Russian lawyer Boris Kuznetsov speaks to the media as he presents his book "It sunk" about the nuclear submarine Kursk disaster, in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Russian lawyer Boris Kuznetsov speaks to the media.

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MOSCOW—Just over a year ago, Boris Kuznetsov moved to the United States, dream destination for would-be migrants all over the world. Now living in a two-room apartment in Fort Lee, N.J., the 64-year-old ex-Muscovite has a view of the Hudson River, and he is adapting to his new life by taking English and driving lessons.

But Kuznetsov is a most reluctant immigrant.

Back in Russia, he was a renowned human-rights lawyer whose clients have included relatives of the murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya and families of sailors killed in the 2000 Kursk submarine explosion. Now, though, Kuznetsov can't return home for fear of prosecution. Before he left, he was about to be arrested after reporting an abuse by the FSB, Russia's state security service. He has been granted asylum in the United States.

He is not the only Russian lawyer to complain of persecution by Russian authorities.

In recent years, lawyers and activists have reported dozens of cases of legal professionals being harassed or worse, with tactics ranging from imprisonment to deportation. "The legal profession isn't going through the best of times," says Sergei Krivosheyev, chairman of the Trade Union of Russian Lawyers. "Lawyers are one of the only more-or-less independent groups left in Russia, though bureaucrats have tried to change that in order to curry favor."

The issue has come into the spotlight as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, inaugurated in May and himself a onetime law student, has said one of his main objectives is wiping out corruption in the legal system—what he termed "legal nihilism."

The extent to which Medvedev follows through on his promise could indicate whether he is his own politician or a Putin figurehead.

It was during Vladimir Putin's eight-year tenure as president, after all, that some of the most serious legal abuses are alleged to have taken place. The dismantling of oil major Yukos and imprisonment of its head, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, was prompted in part, his supports say, by Khodorkovsky's political ambitions because he was deemed a threat to the country's rulers.

In May, evidence emerged that Russia's legal system is indeed open to such manipulation. An Arbitration Court judge, Yelena Valyavina, testified that a member of Putin's administration had asked her to change her ruling on the ownership of shares in a large chemical firm.

Putin's most troubling legal legacy is a proposed legislative amendment that lawyers say will erode their fragile independence even further. The new law would allow the Ministry of Justice to request any case document from an attorney, essentially ending lawyer-client confidentiality.

And it would also give the state office that handles lawyers' licenses the right to revoke a license without input from commissions of lawyers, as is usually the case. In sensitive proceedings, says Krivosheyev, registry officials could tell a lawyer they have concerns about his or her competency and very quickly change the cases' outcome.

"A normal person—and people are always weak—what would he do? He needs to feed his family; he needs to live. So he gives up," he says.

Lawyers for Yukos say they are no strangers to state pressure. In September 2005, Khodorkovsky's Canadian counsel, Robert Amsterdam, was told by five plainclothes officers who knocked on his hotel room door that he had four hours to leave the country. The officers said the company sponsoring Amsterdam's visa had decided to cancel it, though they did not have any documentation.

Amsterdam left, and worries that if he lodges a legal complaint and it is rejected, he can never return to Russia. "The only thing that may allow me to reenter would be the reestablishment of the rule of law," he says.

Another Khodorkovsky lawyer, Karinna Moskalenko, was accused last year by federal prosecutors of not defending her client properly. They tried to have her disbarred—and failed—although Khodorkovsky himself said he was satisfied with Moskalenko's work.

"I'm not afraid of losing my license anymore, I'm old enough to take my pension," Moskalenko says. "What I'm afraid of are passive lawyers who don't apply all their energy to a case out of fear."