Leonid Nikitinsky: The return of exit visas [Novaya gazeta]

21 May 2024

by Leonid Nikitinsky

How the new presidential decree on traveling abroad threatens lawyers

Source: Novaya gazeta

On May 20, the President approved a statute “On the procedure for advance notice to the Russian Federal Security Service (a regional office of the security service) and the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service by certain categories of individuals regarding travel outside the Russian Federation.” Decree No. 429 details the stipulations that have been in place since 1 February 2024, affecting mostly government employees after the August 2023 amendments to the laws “On government secrets” and “On the procedure for traveling in and out of the Russian Federation.”

The “certain categories” of individuals includes more than just senators, State Duma deputies, legislative assemblies, and judges; also included are lawyers with access to state secrets or who are “have knowledge of information of critical importance or that is top secret.”

Under the terms of the decree, all individuals in these categories must inform the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) no less than 30 days before their planned departure abroad (except in urgent cases, with good cause). Lawyers must do the same, through regional Department of Justice offices. The notification will need to specify, among other things, the purpose of the trip, the planned duration, the “means of transportation,” and the address of the stay abroad.

There’s nothing in the version of the presidential decree available to the public about what steps the FSB and SVR will take after being informed in this manner, but it’s obvious that the agencies will be authorized in some way to grant permission for the travel abroad, according to the procedure established in their internal (and top-secret) instructions.

This effectively brings back the Soviet practice of exit visas, but advances in technology within the government allow for more than a stamp in a passport for international travel, like in the USSR. Instead, people can be electronically tagged in the passport-control system so that they can then be simply turned away at border control as “carriers of government secrets.”

For senators and Duma deputies, as well as for civil servants and law enforcement officers, there’s nothing new here, but the news sent a ripple of a panic among lawyers. Moreover, a month ago there were amendments introduced to the law “On the practice of law and the bar,” wherein trips abroad lasting more than one year could result in disbarment (see the comment on this site for April 13), and the travel notification procedure makes it easier to track such travel enthusiasts.

Lawyers are obviously not the main target of the “Provisions,” but why not ruin their lives too, and the lives of their defendants, while you’re at it? Not many lawyers would jeopardize their ability to travel abroad, but all the investigative authorities need to do to deny them the opportunity is confer a security classification on a case.

It wouldn’t be difficult to find grounds for that in either the substance of a case (the abundance of “high treason” cases) or in the identification of use of confidential methods of receiving information, or even by classifying as a government secret any information on receiving “foreign funding” (there are actual precedents for this: cases involving “foreign agents” have so far often been classified as “secret” in order to keep journalists and the public out of the courtroom).

The lists of secret information established by ministries and departments, each in their own area of responsibility, are themselves also secret and confusing. Moreover, a criminal or even administrative case (and a civil or arbitration case too) can be designated as ‘classified’ after a lawyer has taken on the case, in which instance they can no longer unilaterally withdraw their legal services.

Going on vacation to Turkey? Be sure to let the FSB via the Ministry of Justice know, just in case. And don’t forget to get refundable tickets — you may find out the results of their “review” of your itinerary right there at passport control in the airport.

Translated by Nina dePalma

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