By Guest Writer Nevin Kamath
Photo Attribution: James LeeFormerIP at en.wikipedia, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps an underreported tragedy of Russia’s war in Ukraine is the ongoing evaporation of freedoms within Russia itself. I recently moderated the American Bar Association’s (ABA) “Challenges Facing Judges, Lawyers, and other Human Rights Defenders in Russia – Where are we now?” presented to the ABA and the general public by the ABA’s International Law Section, International Human Rights Committee in June 2023. What we heard from three experts was a grim reminder of why Russia scores at a 16/100 (Not Free) and dropping in Freedom House’s 2023 research.

What does the current situation in Russia look like for judges, lawyers, and human rights defenders?

We first heard from Daria Korolenko, a lawyer and researcher with OVD-info, which is an NGO that defends the freedom of peaceful assembly and the freedom of speech by “monitoring  the detention of activists at rallies and providing politically persecuted citizens with legal assistance” in Russia. She compared the human rights situation in Russia to a “frog in a slowly boiling pot.” Things are going from bad to worse, incrementally. Passed in December 2022, the Foreign Agents Law, is now a formidable threat to nonprofit organizations like hers, which was, in fact, placed on the list. The law states that if an organization is under “foreign influence,” then they are deemed a foreign agent and banned from key aspects of civic life.  

Human Rights Watch’s lawyer and researcher, Damelya Aitkhozina, declared support for . Korolenko’s on-the-ground perspective, offering that inside Russia “since the invasion of Ukraine, it has only been repression on steroids” affecting lawyers and protestors alike. She reminded us that many Russian lawyers who were forced to flee Russia are now unable to practice law in a different jurisdiction– working menial jobs to survive in exile.

United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) lawyer and rule of law expert, Melissa Hooper, acknowledged the prior speakers’ contributions–adding an inspiring note that many Russian lawyers are in fact “stepping up” despite the personal risk. This includes representing detained protestors, investigating war crimes, helping to facilitate the movement of Ukrainian detainees, and other personally risky tasks. She noted that noteworthy defenders included the organization “Memorial,” and individuals  such as Ivan Yuryevich Pavlov and Vadim Prokhorov. 

What are some strategies for lending support to affected Russian parties?

For helping in-country individuals, Hooper emphasized that Russia’s Foreign Agents Law “villainizes” international cooperation with Western Europe and the Americas to such an extent that it is necessary to “develop creative approaches to not expose people on the ground to added risk simply by being in contact…Still, maintaining connection and technical and moral support is vital. People in that struggle need to know that someone is paying attention.” 

Hooper noted that, in terms of those who have fled, lawyers in Georgia and Kyrgyzstan are at greatest risk now–as many only had internal passports. Now, Russia has instructed those countries to deport those individuals back to Russia. She emphasized that “western governments recognize that human rights defenders should be seen as human rights defenders and not simply categorized as ‘Russians’ when considering them [for opportunities to seek asylum].”

For my group, the ABA, she suggested that perhaps “we could meet with Congress and the Department of State to encourage an expedited and simpler process for these individuals to get asylum, so they have a way to break free from the risks they now face.”

And for non-lawyers and the public, Daria Korolenko suggested “the most important task is getting out information about what is going on,” a task which not only challenges the official Kremlin narrative, but also nourishes the hopes of in-country dissenters who need to know the world is watching. 

What is the Russian general public’s perception of human rights issues?

We heard from the speakers that “voices outside the government position aren’t heard much in Russia,” and that “those who oppose what is happening are too afraid to speak up.” We also learned that “remote areas [outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg] tend to support the government’s status quo because state information is their primary source of information.” The speakers indicated that “[media] space is continuing to tighten, and the authorities have undertaken to block any alternative view to the Russian government’s.” Though many individuals use a VPN to try to get access to alternative viewpoints, an overbroad economic sanctions regime backfired, making it impossible for Russians to pay for VPN services because international payment systems were blocked.

To counter this bleak situation, Damelya Aitkhozina stressed that “it’s vital for the long game” to maintain outside voices and accounts “for human rights defenders inside the country not to give up and for human rights defenders around the globe to be able to hold Russia accountable eventually.” 

Which organizations are doing important work in this space? 

The panelists suggested working through organizations already set up to support such exiled lawyers. The following links offer a few options: Free Russia Foundation, Prague Civil Society Centre, CEELI Institute, and Freedom House.


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