Accessibility links

Breaking News

This Lawyer Helped Free Four Russian Women Jailed Over Text Messages


Russian lawyer and human rights activist Ivan Pavlov (file photo)

ST. PETERSBURG -- Reflecting on 2017, a year in which he helped win the freedom of four Russian women jailed on treason charges, lawyer Ivan Pavlov muses that former U.S. President Barack Obama lent him a helping hand.

For over two decades Pavlov has been an open-government advocate and has defended Russians charged with treason, taking on cases that pit him in an uneven struggle with investigators of the Federal Security Service (FSB).

It's not your typical court work: his old organization was labeled a "foreign agent" in 2014 and his wife, an American citizen, was deported. Both moves, he has claimed, were intended to pressure him. But on January 30, Human Rights Watch acknowledged his efforts by awarding Pavlov a prize for "courageous and tireless" work.

Pavlov witnessed from within as the number of treason cases in Russia rose after confrontation with the West erupted over Ukraine in 2014. "When there is an enemy abroad, there must also be an enemy at home," Pavlov says.

For Pavlov, the pressure picked up even earlier, in 2013, after he and other civil-society leaders met with U.S. President Barack Obama during a summit of the Group of 20 leading industrialized nations. That meeting still resonates for Pavlov, he told RFE/RL in December at his St. Petersburg office, where a photograph of him meeting Obama hangs on the wall.

Setting An Example?

During the 2013 meeting in St. Petersburg, Pavlov spoke about his legal work in Russia and his open-government advocacy, prompting Obama to ask him how he could help. By his account, Pavlov replied that Obama should "pardon Chelsea Manning," the U.S. soldier formerly known as Bradley Manning who was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2013 on espionage and other charges relating to her disclosure of a trove of classified documents.

"I told him that it would be good for him to show a good example for my country," Pavlov said. "I said, 'Pardon Chelsea Manning and show an example to other [world leaders]'."

In one of the final acts of his presidency, Obama in January 2017 commuted Manning's sentence to seven years already served, setting up her imminent release.

Pavlov said it illustrated the role of the United States on the world stage, and its influence on Russia even when ties are strained. "Of course I'm not saying that [Obama] did this because of me, but I relate this episode to what then happened in Russia," Pavlov said.

"Because then Putin pardoned three."

Jailed For A Text Message?

In late 2016, human rights workers, including Pavlov, learned of a group of women -- including a shopkeeper, a housewife, and a florist -- who in separate cases had been jailed for high treason in the southern resort city of Sochi.

Arrested out of the blue in 2014 and 2015, the women were accused of crimes dating from 2008 and 2009. They had sent text messages to acquaintances in neighboring Georgia about tank and Navy ship movements through and past their long, narrow coastline city that looks out onto the Black Sea.

The text messages came in the months around Russia's August 2008 war with Georgia. But despite the sensitive timing, rights groups protested that a state secret could hardly be something that was seen by much of the city, and that text messages would be ill-suited for passing detailed information.

Oksana Sevastidi, a shopkeeper from the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, was sentenced to seven years in prison in March 2016 for texting a friend about a Russian train carrying military equipment during a five-day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. She was eventually pardoned by President Vladimir Putin a year later. (file photo)
Oksana Sevastidi, a shopkeeper from the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, was sentenced to seven years in prison in March 2016 for texting a friend about a Russian train carrying military equipment during a five-day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. She was eventually pardoned by President Vladimir Putin a year later. (file photo)

Their arrests had gone unnoticed nationally, and the women were assigned lawyers who they would later say ignored them, gave them bad counsel, and did not help them appeal their sentences. The women all received lengthy prison terms.

Pavlov took up all of their cases.

"When we discovered this case at the end of November 2016, our task was to demonstrate its absurdity, not so much to the court, but to the public, to simple people," said Pavlov, describing a loud media campaign his group conducted to raise the profile of the case. "The absurdity was noted not just by simple people, but even by pro-government media."

Two-Word Crime

Just two months after Obama signed a clemency order for Manning in January 2017, Putin in March ordered the release of the first of the jailed women in Sochi, Oksana Sevastidi, after a reporter for the Kremlin-financed RT network raised the issue during Putin's annual press conference.

In June, Putin pardoned two more women, Annik Kesyan and Marina Dzhandzhgava, citing "humanitarian" principles.

Finally, in November, a fourth woman, Inga Tutisani, a 47-year-old florist and mother of one, was released after the Supreme Court reduced her sentence for similar treason charges.

In written comments to RFE/RL, Tutisani said she had not expected to be released ahead of time. "I didn't expect it and wasn't sure about anything. I didn't want a pardoning, but an exoneration since I am not guilty of anything."

She said the text message that got her the jail sentence read "Yes, it was" -- just two words in the original Russian. She had written it to a Georgian school friend of one of her cousins who had asked by text message if a Navy ship had been docked nearby.

She said she confessed to the supposed crime because of threats. "My confession was written because of threats of various kinds, including that they would raise the jail term to 13 years. The assigned lawyer advised me to admit my guilt. What was I meant to do?"

Pavlov criticized the language of Putin's pardon, which cited humanitarian reasons.

"There was nothing humane about these pardons," he said. "It was just an attempt to correct a mistake that had made the authorities look stupid, funny. The authorities can look brutal, they can look fierce, they can be accused of terrible crimes and it will tolerate that. But it will not tolerate it when people look at it and smile."

XS
SM
MD
LG