A group of lawmakers in the Russian parliament's lower chamber, the State Duma, have introduced a bill that would ban lawyers from recording meetings with their convicted clients inside penitentiaries, a move that has sparked sharp criticism from rights activists as a way of muzzling prisoners such as opposition politician Aleksei Navalny.
Civil society advocates say the initiative is linked to ongoing online statements by Kremlin-critic Navalny, a growing number of political prisoners, and a number of other high-profile cases of torture in Russian penitentiaries that came to the attention of the public via video recordings made in prisons.
The bill, which was placed on the State Duma's website and registered for debate on May 6, would ban attorneys from bringing "any communication devices" into penitentiaries.
Such a move would fly in the face of a recent Supreme Court statement saying that lawyers have a right to enter prisons and jails with all types of mobile communication, emphasizing that attempts by the wardens at some penitentiaries to implement such a ban at their facilities were illegal.
Several attorneys who talked to RFE/RL on the issue said that the bill would also violate the rights of inmates and eliminate the last tool inmates have to use to document violations of their rights such as torture.
Maksim Olenichev of the Team 29 group of attorneys told RFE/RL that written complaints about torture in Russian prisons have never been enough to bring such cases to trial, meaning photos and videos are crucial to helping successfully defend inmates' rights.
"We think the main reason the bill was introduced is the appearance of multiple instances of proof of violence [against inmates] in prison in various regions. Yaroslavl, Karelia, Priangarye, [incidents] which came to public knowledge and had probes launched, were only because of photos and video recordings made by lawyers.... The bill would also stop the statements Navalny has been making from prison," Olenichev said.
Lawyer Dmitry Dmitriyev from the Siberian city of Irkutsk told RFE/RL that many penitentiaries have not been allowing lawyers to have mobile phones or cameras when visiting their clients in prisons and jails for years, but some lawyers fought against such bans citing the current law which allows them to bring devices inside penitentiaries.
"Only well-known lawyers have managed to make penitentiary administrations follow the law and had mobile phones with them when meeting with their clients. Such lawyers were mainly those whose clients were involved in high-profile cases, such as Navalny’s case, because their words were cited [by media] and the public reacted to them. Because of that, the opposition politician has been able to communicate with people even from his cell. Each word Navalny sent from behind bars has been discussed even more actively. I think this bill was hastily proposed for debate to stop that," Dmitriyev said.
The head of the Gulagu.net human rights project, Vladimir Osechkin, told RFE/RL that his sources in the State Duma told him that the main goal of the bill was to prevent the flow of information about torture in prisons and stop Navalny's online statements from prison.
"According to the sources, the authors of the bill have tried to push the draft law for several months, and only now did it get a "green light" from the presidential administration and made its way to the State Duma. And this comes at a time when statements about torture in Russian prisons have become systemic, when a new case of torture becomes public each week. And Navalny keeps on irritating [the authorities] with his statements from behind bars," Osechkin said.