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Boris Kuznetsov and the Kremlin’s War on Lawyers

kuznetsov041408.jpgFor quite some time we have carefully followed lawyer Boris Kuznetsov’s clash with Russia’s FSB as an emblematic case of the Kremlin’s war on lawyers and the independence of the judiciary. Since being granted political asylum in the United States, Kuznetsov continues to fight his case and point to the damaging impact on the justice system of having lawyers and judges afraid for their jobs in sensitive cases. There is a very interesting new article about this in U.S. News and World Report by Alistair Gee, which also makes mention of my experience and that of other Yukos lawyers. A few extracts follow after the jump.

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. (…)Kuznetsov’s story, meanwhile, is straight out of a spy novel. His problems began while he was defending Levon Chakhmakhchyan, a member of the upper house of the Russian parliament, against charges of bribery. Kuznetsov discovered documents marked “classified” that indicated the FSB wiretapped the senator without court authorization, and submitted them to Russia’s Constitutional Court. Shortly thereafter, Kuznetsov received word that he was about to be prosecuted for revealing state secrets.Driving home to his dacha one day in early July, he says he was followed. “That night I summoned a few clients in order to distract the people watching, and then went round the back of the property, got in a car, and headed for Ukraine,” he recalls. In a tense moment, he says, border guards stopped him for a little longer than usual while checking his documents but eventually let him pass.Today, Kuznetsov’s lawyers say they have been denied access to the details of the charges against him and only know in the vaguest terms what he is accused of. They argue that violations of human rights—in this case, wiretapping the senator—cannot be considered a state secret under Russian law. “It’s a lawyer’s responsibility to communicate them,” says Ruslan Koblev, a member of Kuznetsov’s legal team.