MOSCOW -- Mikhail Subbotin thought he was answering a call to public service.
Two years ago, then-President Dmitry Medvedev's human rights council recruited the legal expert to draft a report reviewing the most recent conviction of former oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Subbotin agreed to work without pay.
But when the report ended up alleging widespread irregularities connected to Khodorkovsky's prosecution, Subbotin suddenly found himself in the crosshairs of Russia's powerful Investigative Committee.
In September, investigators searched his home and those of two of his colleagues, as well as the Center for Legal and Economic Research, which he heads. They confiscated computers and flash drives, examined his paper archives, and summoned him for questioning.
The reason? Investigators were following up on a decade-old case alleging that Khodorkovsky's money had been laundered in the West and funneled back to Russian NGOs in exchange for reaching "deliberately false conclusions" about his conviction "under the guise of independent public expertise." For the time being he is listed as a "witness" in the case.
Subbotin has denied involvement in such a scheme and defended his work on the commission.
"Experts drew their own personal conclusions," Subbotin says. "It's one thing to say that you don't like an expert's opinion, but it looks simply absurd when persecution begins because you provided your personal opinion."
Subbotin is not alone in his troubles. He is just one of four members of the nine-member team Medvedev's human rights council assembled to look into the Khodorkovsky case who have since been targeted by law enforcement.
Sergei Guriyev, rector of the Moscow New Economic School; Oksana Oleinik, chairwoman of the department of entrepreneurial law at the National Research University Higher School of Economics; and Astamur Tedeyev of the National Research University Higher School of Economics have all been called in for questioning as well.
Presidential human rights council head Mikhail Fedotov calls the developments "absolutely shocking."
"The fact that investigators have persecuted the experts who took part in this public legal report, I think, is simply a mistake," Fedotov says. "Their activity was absolutely within the framework of the law."
Fedotov adds that he felt an "ethical obligation" to send letters warning the six Russian experts and three foreign experts who participated in the report that they might also be targeted.
New And Familiar Targets
Khodorkovsky, who was CEO of the oil giant Yukos, was first arrested in October 2003. In a trial widely believed to be politically driven, he was convicted of fraud and tax evasion in May 2005 and sentenced to nine years in prison.
In December 2010, he was convicted of a second set of charges, embezzlement and money laundering, and sentenced to an additional six years. It was the second conviction that the experts were reviewing.
There has been speculation in the media that the authorities could be preparing a third case against Khodorkovsky and his business partner, Platon Lebedev. Lebedev is due to be released in June 2014 and Khodorkovsky in October of the same year.
In August, the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" speculated that a recent uptick in cases against former Yukos employees could be a prelude to fresh charges against Khodorkovsky.
Tamara Morshchakova, a former Constitutional Court judge and a member of the presidential human rights council, says it is suspicious that the search warrants for the experts' homes and offices were issued as part of a 2003 case against Khodorkovsky. She suggests that investigators could be working on new charges against the oligarch.
"Yes, of course that really is the way it looks because [this persecution] relates to a criminal case opened and dated from 2003," Morshchakova says. "The reference number of the case is the same as the one from the first case against Khodorkovsky and Lebedev."
More Legal Troubles?
Subbotin suggests, however, that it could also be driven by a Kremlin effort to target NGOs receiving foreign funding. Over the past week, Russian law enforcement has raided and searched scores of NGOs across the country.
The Center for Legal and Economic Research has received financing from European and Canadian sources -- a fact noted in the search warrant.
The center has borne the brunt of the legal assault against those who participated in the Khodorkovsky report.
Its head of research, Yelena Novikova, had her home and dacha searched by police, who confiscated her foreign passport. Investigators also searched the home of Ilya Figlin, the center’s executive director. Subbotin says the center has been "paralyzed" as a result.
For his part, Subbotin says six months after his home was searched his computer, flash drives, and research materials have still not been returned.
"Around three weeks ago, I wrote a statement saying that six months had elapsed and I asked them to at least give me a chance to copy my materials," Subbotin says. "I have my whole archive on the flash disks. I gather information and correspondence with people. Everything is there and I have been unable to work for half a year. I tell them, 'That's fine if you want to analyze it, but at least let me copy it.'"
Morshchakova notes that the way Subbotin and the other experts have been treated suggests their legal troubles could yet become even more severe.
"They have not brought formal allegations against the experts," Morshchakova says. "They are witnesses by status. But the measures being implemented here are not used against just witnesses: You don't confiscate materials from a witness."