Russian Government Seeking a New Way to Intimidate Lawyers
by Paul Goble
A Russian Supreme Court proposal to make it easier to lift the immunity from prosecution members of the Duma and Federation Council currently enjoy has attracted a great deal of attention not only because of the number of deputies widely suspected of criminal activity but also because of the desire of many in the population to see them prosecuted.
But another aspect of the proposed legislation, one that reduces current restrictions on the ability of the Russian government to bring charges against lawyers may be even more significant because it could give the powers that be new powers to intimidate those who defend people the authorities want to see convicted.
Yevgeny Arkhipov, the head of the Association of Russian Lawyers for Human Rights, told the Moscow-based Agency of National News yesterday that his organization was "extremely concerned" about the way in which the Russian government's executive branch might exploit such a change (www.annews.ru/news/detail.php?ID=176308).
The lawyer said that his members are convinced that the powers that be would exploit such a change to reduce the rights and independence of lawyers by allowing officials to bring charges of corruption and other crimes against them whenever they working to defend people the regime wants convicted.
Indeed, Arkhipov said, that is all the more likely to be the case because the lawyers under the proposed rule changes will have far fewer rights of appeal than will others. The Duma would still have to lift the immunity of one of its members, and the judges' collegium would have to agree to lift it in the case of a jurist.
But if the authorities bring charges against a lawyer, Arkhipov pointed out, the only thing they would need to get would be the approval of a judge, someone over whom the authorities in many cases exercise more control than they should. And that means that lawyers as a corporate entity would have no way to defend one of their own.
Arkhipov's association considers such changes "impermissible" and a threat to the "basic rights and freedoms" of all citizens, to their ability to secure professional legal help, and to the principle of "the equal status of the sides in both criminal and civil cases." Consequently, the association has called on the Duma to reject the measure at least in its present form.
One possible modification to the draft the Supreme Court has offered would involve giving lawyers a greater role in deciding which of their number might have to give up their immunity, and another amendment might involve protecting lawyers against the loss of immunity while they were defending someone in court.
Arkhipov's comments are important both in their own right and as a reminder that many measures most people assume are intended to achieve one goal may in fact have unintended consequences or, what is perhaps worse, have been designed by their authors to achieve such outcomes in the first place.
Paul A. Goble is an American analyst, writer and columnist with expertise on Russia, Eurasia, public diplomacy and international broadcasting. Goble publishes his articles on his blog "Window on Eurasia" (windowoneurasia.blogspot.com).