Lawyers take risks for Russian protesters
Violetta Volkova awakened that fateful morning in December a hard-hitting lawyer in mergers and acquisitions. Before the end of the day, she was getting neophyte demonstrators out of prison. In a few weeks, she would be defending some of Vladimir Putin’s worst enemies, including a punk rock band. A year later, she was a well-known human rights lawyer.
Many Russians changed on December 5, 2011, when Muscovites, enraged by what they saw as a fraudulent parliamentary election the day before, demonstrated in unexpected numbers. Disgruntled young people and the passive middle class took to the streets, ready for the first time to join a protest. Leaders have started to emerge from previously unrecognized opposition movements. Punk rockers began planning political protests that would end with a performance in Moscow’s main cathedral. Soon a lot of people needed lawyers.
A few tweets that night and Volkova also found herself transformed, dealing with human rights and political affairs. It is an area with many risks and few triumphs – the courts are widely seen as listening to political orders rather than legal arguments.
Earlier today, she had visited the old Muscovite district of Chistye Prudy, where permission had been granted to organize what was supposed to be a typically small opposition rally. Volkova, along with fellow lawyer Nikolai Polozov, was astonished to see lines of police vans fill the streets. “The number of police officers was huge,” she said. She was convinced that the authorities were preparing to round up the demonstrators.
She started to notice all the tweets – Twitter was electrified by people urging their friends to join the protest. “Call me if you need help,” she wrote. “Don’t worry,” they replied. “We won’t.”
She and Polozov were sitting in a cafe on the second floor watching the crowds gather. Below they could see a well-known colleague, Mark Feygin. The three would meet three months later and form the defense team for punk-rock band Pussy Riot.
Soon the police began to fill their vans with protesters and calls for help were tweeted. Volkova and Polozov walked to a nearby police station and at 2 a.m. 15 detainees were released. Later, it was estimated that several hundred had been taken to different stations.
After that, his client list grew, as did the demos. The frustrations too.
Charges of hooliganism
Three members of the Pussy Riot who entered the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February to protest Russia’s growing authoritarianism and church support for Putin have been convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred, an offense criminal punishable by up to seven years in prison.
During the trial, the judge had no patience for arguments regarding the political protest or that the act fell under civil laws which would result in a fine rather than jail time. The prosecution was allowed to call any witnesses it wanted. The defense called three on a list of a dozen. His motions were defeated one after the other.
“It’s hard to control yourself when they tell you black is white,” said Volkova, who at one point lashed out at the judge. “You understand that there is no justice. At this point, you become a human rights activist.
The three women were sentenced to two years in a penal colony, although one was released in October because she was arrested by guards before joining the show. She criticized the defense team and got a new lawyer, but last month she dropped her complaints.
In November, Feygin, Polozov and Volkova parted ways with the other two. They had been refused permission to see them in their prison camps. They said the two young women would be better helped by lawyers less hated by the government.
Today, Volkova’s most prominent client is Sergei Udaltsov, a socialist leader. He has been the subject of several prosecutions, including accusations of plotting to incite mass riots during a demonstration on May 6 in Bolotnaya Square, on the eve of Putin’s presidential inauguration.
The police and the demonstrators then clashed, and about 20 of them are under investigation. A man was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison for assaulting a police officer, even though he cooperated with the police and apologized. Others fear even more severe treatment.
Irregular working days
As a commercial lawyer, Volkova, 40, specialized in combating corporate raids – takeovers often carried out with the help of corrupt police and courts. She had started her career as a prosecutor but couldn’t stand a system that worked like a machine, she said, discouraging independent thinking. Last fall, when his team visited the United States, Polozov described the role of a lawyer here as transporting money from the client to the investigator or court officials. “Some are happy with this situation,” he said. “We are not.”
Volkova is divorced – no man could handle her long, irregular working days, she said. She has an 18-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son and lives with her mother, who runs the household and makes Volkova’s life possible on Twitter.
One spring morning, Volkova saw a tweet about Suren Gazaryan, an environmental activist from the southern Krasnodar region, who was at risk of going to jail for protesting the construction of a residential complex for a local official in a protected forest. .
Within hours, Volkova was on the case and in the air. Gazaryan had been accused of causing thousands of dollars in damage by painting a small slogan on a fence. She took issue with the lack of evidence, the lack of an expert to assess the cost of the fence and a long list of other weaknesses in the case. In the end, Gazaryan got probation instead of three years in prison. But the authorities had not given up. They brought new charges against him and he fled the country.
Lawyers take political matters at their own risk. Volkova considers herself lucky to have succeeded so far with her frozen bank accounts, the occasional threat of delisting and nasty comments via social media about her vehemence and weight. Feygin was called as a witness in the Bolotnaya case. “Witnesses soon turn into defendants,” Volkova said.
No one in the human rights community has forgotten how Stanislav Markelov, a 34-year-old lawyer who defended Chechens mistreated by the Russian military, was shot dead near a busy Moscow metro station in January 2009, dying with a young reporter who was walking with him after a press conference.
“I’m not afraid,” Volkova said. “It’s our life.”