TALLINN, Estonia (AP) — Russian authorities on Friday detained three lawyers representing imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny after searching their homes, his allies said, a step that comes amid increasing pressure on the Kremlin’s critics.
The move was an attempt to “completely isolate Navalny,” his ally Ivan Zhdanov said on social media. Navalny, 47, has been behind bars since January 2021, serving a 19-year prison sentence but has been able to get messages out regularly and keep up with the news.
The raids targeting Vadim Kobzev, Igor Sergunin and Alexei Liptser are part of a criminal case on charges of participating in an extremist group, Zhdanov said. All three were detained after the search, apparently as suspects in the case, Navalny’s team said on Telegram. All three later in the day appeared in court and were ordered to pre-trial detention pending investigation and trial.
Independent Russian media also reported a raid at a law firm that employs another of Navalny’s lawyers, Olga Mikhailova. According to reports, she is currently not in Russia.
Navalny, currently in Penal Colony No. 6 in the Vladimir region east of Moscow, is due to be transferred to a “special security” penal colony, a facility with the highest security level in the Russian penitentiary system, his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh told The Associated Press.
“If he won’t have access to lawyers, he will end up in complete isolation, the kind no one can really even imagine,” she said.
If his lawyers end up in jail, Navalny will be deprived not only of legal representation but also of his “only connection” to the world outside of prison, Yarmysh said:
“Letters go through poorly and are being censored,” she said. With Navalny being held in a special punitive facility in the colony, he is not allowed any phone calls and hardly any visits from anyone but his lawyers, she said, “and now it means he will be deprived of this, as well.”
For many political prisoners in Russia, regular visits from lawyers — especially in remote regions — are a lifeline that allows them to keep their loved ones informed about their well-being, as well as report and push back against abuse by prison officials.
Navalny is President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest foe, campaigning against official corruption and organizing major anti-Kremlin protests. He 2021 arrest came upon his return to Moscow from Germany where he recuperated from nerve agent poisoning that he blamed on the Kremlin. He has since been handed three prison terms, most recently on the charges of extremism, and spent months in isolation facilities in the prison over various minor infractions prison officials accused him of.
Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and a vast network of regional offices were outlawed that same year as extremist groups, a step that exposed anyone involved with them to prosecution.
Navalny has previously rejected all the charges against him as politically motivated and accused the Kremlin of seeking to keep him behind bars for life.
Kobzev was due in court Friday, along with Navalny, for a hearing on two lawsuits the opposition leader had filed against the penal colony where he’s being held. Navalny said at the hearing, which was later adjourned until November, that the case against his lawyers is indicative “of the state of rule of law in Russia.”
“Just like in Soviet times, not only political activists are being prosecuted and turned into political prisoners, but their lawyers, too,” he said.
Increasing isolation is something other political prisoners are facing, as well. Last month, imprisoned opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza was transferred to a penal colony in Siberia and placed in a tiny “punishment cell,” his lawyers said.
Kara-Murza, 42, was convicted of treason for publicly denouncing Russia’s war in Ukraine and sentenced to 25 years in prison earlier this year. His social media posts are regularly updated with messages from behind bars, and his columns frequently appear in Western media.
But in a penal colony in the Siberian city of Omsk, Kara-Murza is “alone in a small cell, where there’s only a wash basin, a latrine, a chair and a table, and a bed that is strapped to the wall for the entire day,” his lawyer Maria Eismont wrote in a Facebook post last week.
“He is allowed to have only soap, toilet paper, a toothbrush and toothpaste, slippers, one book. Letters, a pen, paper and case files are given to him for only an hour and a half a day. There’s an hour-long walk in the prison yard, where he walks alone as well. The rest of the time he can sit on an uncomfortable chair or pace the cell,” Eismont wrote.
Alexei Gorinov, a former member of a Moscow municipal council, is serving his sentence in similar conditions. Gorinov, 62, was convicted of “spreading false information” about the army in July 2022 over antiwar remarks made at a council session and sentenced to seven years in prison. He’s been in a “punishment cell” repeatedly since early September in IK-2, a penal colony in the Vladimir region east of Moscow.
Last week, Gorinov was transferred to a pre-trial detention center in Vladimir after a new criminal probe was launched against him on charges of condoning terrorism, according to his Telegram page. The post didn’t clarify the accusations against Gorinov. In the detention center, he was once again placed in an unheated “punishment cell,” and he will stay there until Oct. 25, the post said.
Andrei Pivovarov, another imprisoned high-profile opposition figure, has been in isolation since January. Pivovarov, 42, was sentenced to four years in prison on the charges of engaging with an “undesirable” organization -— a label slapped on the pro-democracy group he headed, Open Russia, shortly before his arrest.
Pivovarov is serving his sentence at IK-7 in the Karelia region of northern Russia and is being held in a “restricted housing unit” in a single cell, his wife Tatyana Usmanova told AP. She has only seen him once since his arrest in May 2021: they were married in July 2023 and allowed a three-day visit.
Pivovarov is not allowed to have phone calls and only gets about two hours a day for writing letters, which go through prison censors to get mailed, so if not for the lawyers visiting him regularly, Usmanova says she would have “really long gaps between those letters during which I wouldn’t at all know whether he’s OK or not OK, healthy or not healthy, alive or not.”
Jailed artist and musician Sasha Skochilenko, meanwhile, faces a different kind of pressure. Arrested in April 2022 on charges of spreading false information about the army after replacing supermarket price tags with antiwar slogans to protest the invasion, Skochilenko is on trial, with almost daily court hearings that often prevent her from getting meals.
At a hearing last month, the judge called an ambulance to the courthouse after Skochilenko fell ill, telling the court it was her second day without any food. The 33-year-old suffers from several health problems, including a congenital heart defect, bipolar disorder and celiac disease, requiring a gluten-free diet.
At another hearing earlier this week Skochilenko burst into tears after the judge rejected a request for a break so that she could eat or at least use the bathroom, her partner Sofya Subbotina recalled in an interview with AP.
“She’s great, she’s been holding up really well these past year and a half. But lately it’s been really hard on her,” Subbotina said. “A psychiatrist visited her (in jail) … Right now she’s suffering from a depressive episode of moderate severity. What’s happening in court is abuse, and we can’t change it, lawyers can’t change it.”