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'A Planned Assault Along Many Fronts': Russia's Komanda 29 Shutters, Saying It's Too 'Dangerous' To Continue


"We don't cooperate with [the Czech NGO]. We don't have any ties to it. But if we continue working in our previous way, it will create enormous risks for members of our team as well as for journalists and people who cite our information," a member of the group said.

MOSCOW -- Just one month shy of its seventh birthday, the prominent legal-aid nongovernmental organization Komanda 29 has ceased its activities following a long pressure campaign against it by the Russian authorities.

The authorities on July 16 blocked the Komanda 29 website because of the organization's purported connections with a Czech NGO called Spolecnost Svobody Informace, which has been designated an "undesirable" organization in Russia.

Under the controversial law on "undesirable" organizations, any Russian individual or organization that "cooperates" with a designated group risks potentially severe administrative or criminal penalties.

"Under these circumstances, the continued work of Komanda 29 creates a clear and direct threat to the security of a large number of people, and we cannot ignore that risk," the group said in a social-media post announcing its shutdown.

Yevgeny Smirnov
Yevgeny Smirnov

"The authorities' logic is clear although we, of course, don't agree with it," Komanda 29 lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov told RFE/RL. "We don't cooperate with [the Czech NGO]. We don't have any ties to it. But if we continue working in our previous way, it will create enormous risks for members of our team as well as for journalists and people who cite our information."

Smirnov's colleague, Komanda 29 lawyer Yevgeny Olenichev, said the latest moves against the group "made it simply too dangerous to keep working as before."

The pressure campaign against Komanda 29 made headlines in April, when the group's founder and leader, defense attorney Ivan Pavlov, was arrested and charged with revealing state secrets. Since then he has been under house arrest and barred from using the Internet or communicating with journalists.

"This is one general attack against us all," Smirnov said. "And this attack did not begin on April 30 when Ivan was detained. It began last year, when they tried to disbar our lawyers. It is a planned assault on many fronts that continues to the present. We are making public whatever we can make public. But there is other information that we cannot talk about because of the need to protect our clients."

'A Bone In The Throat' Of The FSB

Komanda 29 was a group of young St. Petersburg-based lawyers that specialized in open-government cases. According to Olenichev, the group was handling about 25 cases when it closed, including several involving alleged high treason and espionage. The group was defending Karina Tsurkan, who was convicted last year of spying for Moldova, and former journalist Ivan Safronov, who faces charges of revealing secrets about Russian arms sales to the Czech Republic.

Komanda 29 has also been involved in several cases aimed at gaining access to Federal Security Service (FSB) archives containing information about political repressions and other crimes of the Soviet state during the 1930s and 1940s.

When Pavlov was arrested in April, lawyer Irina Biryukova said that "he has been like a bone in the throat of the security agencies."

Maksim Olenichev
Maksim Olenichev

Olenichev says there are many reasons why the FSB has targeted Komanda 29, including its representation of the now-banned organizations of opposition political leader Aleksei Navalny and its efforts to gain access to the closed FSB archives.

"In many areas we have had good results that attracted the attention of the authorities," he said, adding that the government was also "cleaning up the entire civic sector" in preparation for the September elections to the State Duma.

Smirnov added that the Komanda 29 lawyers will continue to work individually but the group will lose the "collaboration that enables us to more effectively do the work we were doing individually."

"Journalists and lawyers who work in political matters get better results by working together than by working alone," he said. "That, apparently, was a goal of the attack -- to make it so we would not be as effective and so we would be less noticeable and less of an obstacle to our opponents."

Lawyers Maksim Olenichev (from left), Yevgeny Smirnov, Ilya Novikov, Ivan Pavlov, Vladimir Voronin, and Valeria Vetoshkina speak with the media near the Moscow City Court on June 9 during the case against Navalny's organization.
Lawyers Maksim Olenichev (from left), Yevgeny Smirnov, Ilya Novikov, Ivan Pavlov, Vladimir Voronin, and Valeria Vetoshkina speak with the media near the Moscow City Court on June 9 during the case against Navalny's organization.

Lev Shlosberg, a local lawmaker in Pskov and head of the Pskov regional branch of the Yabloko party, wrote on Facebook that the government was attacking the very notion that Russians have rights and freedoms that can be defended.

"The authorities want to show everyone that they have no rights and are defenseless," he wrote, "that there are no inherent human rights and freedoms in Russia. Only unlimited violence and impunity."

The government is "destroying everything that has been done by people without its involvement," Kirill Martynov, political editor at the independent newspaper Novaya gazeta, wrote on Facebook. "Here in Russia everyone who is doing something that is dear to them has gotten used to the routine: get knocked down by the state, get back up, move forward."

Journalist Maria Eismont noted that Komanda 29's closure came at the same time that the government named the Institute of Law and Public Policy, another legal-aid NGO that brings Russian citizens' cases to the European Court of Human Rights, a so-called "foreign agent."

"It would be hard to find a more patriotic activity than helping Russian citizens fight for their rights against those who are much more powerful," she wrote on Facebook. "There is no doubt that such organizations are not only ‘desirable,' but essential for any society that is thinking about its future."

Political analyst Aleksandr Shmelev called the law on "undesirable" organizations "absolutely fascist and so blatantly illegal that it stands out sharply against the background of all our other illegal, fascist laws."

"I am almost certain that this law will be used more and more frequently in the coming years and everyone imaginable will be deemed 'undesirable,'" he wrote on Facebook. "After all, it is simply so convenient!"

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from Russia by Svetlana Prokopyeva and Anna Yarovaya of the North.Realities desk of RFE/RL's Russian Service
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