5 March 2021
Elena Kriven, a journalist with Lawyer’s Street (Advokatskaya Ulitsa) spoke with Alla Frolova, coordinator of legal assistance at OVD-Info and recipient of the Moscow-Helsinki Group prize, about the conditions under which they work with lawyers.
The mass non-admission of defence lawyers to arrested protesters has sparked an unexpected discussion within the legal community. Some lawyers asked whether it is ethical to enter into an “impersonal” agreement with an NGO to protect protesters – and whether it is acceptable for a lawyer and a client to meet for the first time in a police department. There were concerns that a “human rights” lawyer might impose their services and a “political” line of defence on a detainee in the police department. Lawyer’s Street (Advokatskaya Ulitsa) spoke with Alla Frolova, coordinator of legal assistance at OVD-Info and recipient of the Moscow-Helsinki Group prize, about the conditions under which they work with lawyers.
At first, OVD-Info’s only objective was collecting information about detainees. How and why did the organisation’s legal service begin?
Yes, OVD-Info was founded in 2011 to monitor the situation. Our staff would receive calls from people who had been arrested and recorded their information – most importantly so that their relatives would know where they were. After all, when people get lost, anything can happen to them. Information protects – that’s the main principle.
I wasn’t working with OVD-Info then. I was working in human rights: I went to protests, watched what was happening, then went to the police station – I was offiicaly an aide to a State Duma deputy. I met lawyers there too. I helped friends who had been arrested and those who I was asked to look out for.
But at the end of 2015, OVD-Info and I decided to create a project together providing legal support for arrested people.
If people asked us for help, it meant they couldn’t find it anywhere else. We wanted to help them, but we understood that such work should be done by a professional. And providing legal assistance is a task for a lawyer.
At first, we helped in specific, isolated cases. If there were lawyers in the city who themselves expressed a desire to help those who had been arrested, we met with them and joined forces. Back then, all their work was pro bono.
The first protest where we tried to do all this in a more organised way was on 26 March 2017, at the “He is not Dimon to you” demonstrations (Russia-wide protest actions led by politician Aleksei Navalny following his investigation into the property of former president Dmitry Medvedev). 1,043 people were arrested in Moscow alone at that time. Anyone who could help did. But we had far fewer lawyers then.
Why would those detained on administrative charges need a lawyer at all?
If a person is entitled to protection and asks for it, why not help them? Many people do not understand what can and cannot be written in the charge sheets. They do not know the limits of police powers, they cannot recognise unlawful actions. But even if you are completely confident in yourself, you don’t know exactly what will happen after the arrest. After all, you may also be psychologically abused, they can start intimidating you. A person can simply suffer a great deal inside a police station.
Is that less likely to happen with a lawyer?
Yes, of course it is. Because you will have someone who is legally competent with you at the police station. A professional who will not allow the police to illegally confiscate your phone, to take fingerprints. Our lawyers do not only provide legal protection, but also psychological. So that a person is not frightened, so that they are not intimidated.
If there is a lawyer at the police station, the police are more likely to behave correctly and do not take too many liberties. With a lawyer in the police station, we are moving, if not towards a state based on the rule of law, then towards a ‘police station based on the rule of law.’
But I will tell you – the state has itself has made matters such that no one, except a lawyer, can help in a police station. Under the law, anyone can act as a public defender in administrative proceedings – even a relative or friend. But in recent years it has become impossible to enter a police station unless you are a lawyer. Rarely do they let a person in with a notarised power of attorney.
How does OVD-Info work with lawyers? Some may think it strange that it is an NGO that hires a defence lawyer for a detainee and the lawyer and client meet for the first time at the police station.
The law allows a lawyer to enter into an agreement with an organisation for the benefit of a third party. If the lawyer says, ‘I want to help’, we sign an agreement with them. It’s a completely standard form – lawyers can put in whatever their law firm or bar association requires.
Then the hour of truth comes when they detain people who have taken to the streets. Although it is not only at protests that we help. These days activists and opposition activists are detained almost every day. A person calls OVD-Info and says: “They’re taking me to a police station, I need a lawyer.” This is a request for help. We find a lawyer who has an agreement with us. The lawyer says “I’m ready” and goes to a specific person. Sometimes several people from the same police station ask for help. Then the lawyer makes out the appropriate documents for each client and works with each person in turn at the station.
Yes, the detainee did not make an agreement directly with the lawyer. But they have submitted a request for assistance, and we’re honouring it. And if they then tell the lawyer they don’t need them, we don’t force them.
Concerns have been raised that this agreement between lawyers and the NGO may contain some kind of political agenda. And lawyers, acting on the basis of these agreements, would impose a certain line of conduct on those detained.
This is a legal agreement, not a political one. There is not a single ‘political’ word in it. The lawyer works in the interests of their clients and that is what our agreement says.
Is there a chance that a lawyer that comes to a defendant might then end up defending everyone detained in the police station? Will people be forced to accept their legal services?
Nobody forces anyone to accept the help of a lawyer. We do not try and “grab” as much as we can. This is nonsense. The lawyers who work with us are spending their own time doing so, why would they impose themselves on anyone? There are some detainees who say “No need, I’ll do it myself.” However, if a detainee reaches out to our lawyer and the lawyer has the opportunity to help then he will. And we will pay for it.
If we were doing something illegal, it would already be known. Our activities are already under the microscope. And I do everything within the legal boundaries set by this government so that I cannot be accused of anything. As for the “politics” in the agreement, yes, our organization has certain human rights values that I convey to lawyers. But I convey them to all people. Article 31 of the Constitution exists and that means that individuals have the right to assemble peacefully, without weapons, hold rallies, meetings and demonstrations, marches and pickets. We also share human values: if people in custody ask for water, they must receive it.
We have lawyers with different outlooks on life, but they share a belief in human rights and human values
Let’s clarify: a lawyer from OVD-Info will only defend those who admit that they protested? Only “politicals”?
Whether they are political or not political does not matter. If a person is detained, then he is entitled to a defence. If that person had not gone to the rally but was merely a passer-by, they suffered, their rights were violated. There are plenty of such cases.
The position of the detainee is always the most important thing. If I say that I went to a rally and I want it recorded as such then the lawyer will support this position. If I say that I passed by a rally, then the lawyer will support this position too. If I say that I am guilty and that I admit my guilt, then our lawyer will support this position too.
Some lawyers tell us that there is no need to defend the political ones, they knew what they were doing. It would appear that it’s fine to defend gangsters and rapists but not politicals. If someone goes to rob a store, is he not aware of the consequences? What’s more even if a person did not go out into the street peacefully the job of a lawyer is to defend him. Whether it was the right choice or not is another question. But a person must be sure that lawyers will help them – and that they will not be beaten up at the police station.
Do you currently pay all your lawyers to work? Or do they work pro bono?
This depends on the situation. There are lawyers who share our views on human rights. They’ll come to us and say: “I can’t stand to see all of our rights being violated. I want to give my help to these people”. Well, if a lawyer desires to help by spending their time working pro bono, we can only support their decision.
However, we gather funds specifically to cover legal assistance and we can afford to pay lawyers for their work at this time. Not everyone arrested can get themselves a lawyer and even for simple administrative cases the cost of a lawyer is beyond their means. This is neither good nor bad, but it is the nature of this line of work. Therefore, we do need human rights organisations to give their help to those how can’t afford it themselves.
We pay everyone at an equal rate. The rate is average for Russia but it is several times lower than the commercial rate in a lot of cases. So, to accuse lawyers of wanting to profit from protests is very much a questionable statement.
Do the lawyers only defend detainees in the police station or also in the courts?
We try to provide defence in the courts. If we don’t have enough resources, then we offer distance consulting to the defence. In this situation the consultant doesn’t necessarily have to be a barrister; they could be a solicitor or just a person with experience. I’m personally not fond of the idea that it is lawyers defend detainees in the courts., as lawyers are busy people with their own cases to deal with. But now Covid works to the advantage of the authorities. They can even stop people without the status of a lawyer from entering the court, and therefore we are left with no choice but to ask lawyers.
We work by request through a form on our site that anyone can fill out. They need to include the court date, and we can provide the lawyer. Lawyers will generally work with people detained in the police station, so I’ll take the detainee a written contract of defence and discuss their position with them. If a person says: “I want to plead guilty to all charges”, we’ll let them.
In these situations, we don’t force anyone on anybody. Sometimes you can only meet with a person in court – when they are facing being jailed or remanded in custody, and the defendant is brought to the courthouse straight from the police station. How can they find a lawyer when they’ve had their phone confiscated and they have been 48 hours without any communications? In these situations, it’s family members or friends who contact us. They’ll say that someone is in the police station, tomorrow there’ll be a court hearing and they ask for help.
How can one become a lawyer for OVD-Info? What are your requirements?
Whoever wants to should approach us. We can talk with people who are interested, and we’ll explain how we work and show them an agreement. I understand that many lawyers don’t think administrative cases are that interesting. But they’re very labour-intensive cases.
We want to bring all cases to the ECtHR, because domestically it’s almost impossible to prove innocence. I could share dozens of stories about that. A young man traveled to Moscow to visit his girlfriend. They spent some time together, and then on Saturday she went to work. He went to the city centre. He didn’t realize there was a protest that day and got arrested. Or in 2019, a worker at the market on Trubnaya Square took a fateful smoke break. He told the police, “Look, I work here.” But how can you prove something if no one’s listening?
As for those who aren’t suited for the work we do – well, something happened in February, I won’t mention any names. In one court, a lawyer started saying, “Everyone just plead guilty – that’ll get you out of here faster.” He talked his clients into it. That’s it – there’s nothing strict about it. Our lawyers must fight for everyone. If someone doesn’t want to plead guilty, they shouldn’t be persuaded to do so.
What are the specifics of the work your lawyers do? What do they need to be prepared for?
They need to be prepared for everything. First of all, there’s denial of access to clients. Lawyers could spend two, three, even six hours at police stations. Then they should expect that their client will have no idea what’s going on at the police station. Don’t think that all protesters are savvy in these matters – many of them will need lengthy explanations. When people go to a protest, they don’t initially think they could be arrested.
You need to be prepared for the possibility that they have already signed something while the lawyer was trying to get to the station. And for the possibility that they’ve already been intimidated and will end up waiving your defence.
Is this a problem for you?
It’s a problem for everyone. These are people who ask for help and are then told by the police: waive the lawyer’s offer and everything will be OK. What does that actually mean? If we want to keep you locked up, we will do. If we want to release you, we’ll do that. It’s openly saying: things will be the way we want them to be.
And why is it so important for them that there are no “outsiders” in the police building? Because any person – a lawyer, a relative – could witness the illegal goings-on there. Rewriting reports using carbon paper, coercion into fingerprinting, ridicule, bullying.
Here’s a story. A woman was arrested, and her mom came to the police department. The mom is carried off into an office, where they start fingerprinting and interrogating her, and they put her in a holding cell. What does this tell us? They have no need for witnesses, let alone a professional who knows what’s legal and what isn’t.
In 2019, when the “Moscow Case” began (a series of prosecutions about alleged “riots” during protests due to opposition candidates not being allowed to stand in the Moscow City Duma election – Аdvokatskaya ulitsa) investigators came to the police station and interrogated the detainees as witnesses in the criminal case. Our lawyers, however, weren’t allowed in at that time, because they would interfere, would prevent the investigators from asking any questions, prevent them from exerting psychological pressure. The same thing has been happening nowadays as well in several police stations.
You said there were far fewer lawyers before, but also that, at recent protests, you didn’t have
enough defence lawyers. How many lawyers do you need?
We need as many again. I never tell the media how many lawyers we have working with us – it’s
a strategic issue. If I say we have two hundred lawyers, the police will make sure to take the people
they’ve detained to three hundred different police stations.
For every 1,000 people detained, I would like us to have 2,000 lawyers. Why are you surprised? They are realistic figures. At present, there are around 8,000 lawyers working in Moscow.
Okay, so let’s imagine that there has been a rally and all those lawyers come out to work in the
evening. What will change?
It will change the police’s attitude to protesters and to the law. If they didn’t have 20 terrified
kids sitting in a hall like they do now… If all those lawyers were to turn up and take their client by
the hand, if they were to stop their telephones from being taken away, stop them from being
humiliated and refused water, stop nonsense from being written down in the reports, then
attitudes would change. Every detainee would know that they’re protected, that they will be given
help – both legal and psychological. And the police would know that lawlessness will not be
tolerated, that the lawyers will be recording everything.
OVD-Info has launched a campaign against lawyers being refused access under the pretext of
Plan Fortress. Why are you doing this?
Plan Fortress is stopping us from fulfilling our obligations: people are asking for help, but we
can’t give it. Plan Fortress is allowing some police stations to act unlawfully towards detainees – to
humiliate and intimidate them. That is why Plan Fortress needs to be fought against, to stop
people suffering. People already have enough worry in their lives, enough misery.
Plan Fortress is extremely serious. It is activated when there is a real threat of attack against a
police station, a detention facility, or another organisation. But then certain things must be
observed inside the police station. Everyone should know where they stand. Until the plan is lifted,
it should apply to everything. But while declaring Plan Fortress to the lawyers, the police still
remember to order themselves pizza and let in friends. It’s understandable that, even when Plan
Fortress has been invoked, they need to eat. And they aren’t afraid of pizza delivery drivers – only
lawyers. It is all illegal, and we will sue; we will challenge lawyers being refused access. We
urge all lawyers to join in – write to us.
On days when rallies took place there were so many reports about lawyers being denied entry that the problem seemed to be a universal one. Is that a fair assumption?
On 2 February, around 10% of our defence lawyers made it into police stations. It would appear that they succeeded in gaining access before everyone was aware of the harsher orders. On 31 January, 1% of our lawyers gained access – and that by chance. We even went so far as to tell lawyers to record the fact that they had been denied entry and to try a different police station in an attempt to gain access somewhere – anywhere.
The police did not even try to conceal what was happening; they simply said, “We have our orders, and that’s that”. Orders are more important than the truth. They know that if they fulfil their orders nothing will happen to them, even if they are breaking the law. And that is what we are fighting against.
We have already passed on the reports about our lawyers being denied entry to the Russian Federal Bar Association, and we very much hope that they will be able to help us. We have also passed on information to the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman.
If almost all of your lawyers were denied entry to police stations, is it worth sending them there in the first place? Do you have a back-up plan of any kind?
My back-up plans all involve fighting against travesties of justice. We’ve asked ourselves this question, of course. But you yourself must understand – I can’t discuss our possible back-up plans in public now, otherwise they won’t work in future.
And how did your lawyers respond to the fact that they were denied entry? Did they not want to give up on the whole thing?
We’re all human, naturally. And lawyers also become weary. Who likes waiting in a queue on the pavement for hours on end? One day we go and see a normal client and we are let in, but the next day we go and see a “political” client and we are denied entry. That says a lot about our arbitrary legal system – one day you can, but the next day there are “orders” saying that you cannot. It follows that our country is governed not by laws, but by orders handed down from above.
All of our lawyers already take it for granted that obstacles may be placed in their way, and that they will be forced to wait for a long time. We ask only that each denial of entry be recorded. Some lawyers get burned out, of course – it’s an aggravating business. Some of them refuse to take any money, and say that they don’t deserve to be paid since they were unable to gain access to the police stations. In my opinion, however, this is work like any other, and they have earned their money. The lawyers are not to blame, after all.
Have there been any systemic changes over the years that you’ve been sending lawyers to visit prisoners?
For the better or for the worse?
Everything has got tougher. The goal pursued by the system is to scare people so that they no longer take to the streets and protest. Our goal is to defend people and force the police to act in a lawful manner. The more effective we become, the harder the system hits back. Why on earth would they want a culture of effective legal defence? Why would they want an effective civil society that can defend its family members and friends and afford legal counsel for them?
Just think about how many volunteers we have – probably the only organisation with more is the Red Cross. And this horizontal civil society movement against travesties of justice proves that we are doing everything right. Otherwise people would not support us, and otherwise lawyers would not join our ranks – and certainly not in such numbers. And if they now start fighting against us with the power of the “fortress strategy”, that is merely evidence that we really have done everything right, and we will think up some new strategy.