Ivan Pavlov: “Virtually the entire country, including the courts, is under the influence of the FSB, if not in its grip.”

6 May 2021

Laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Human Rights Prize, leader of the legal and advocacy group Team 29, the lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who was served with a search warrant on 30 April and accused of disclosing confidential information about an investigation, spoke with Timur Olevsky about the power of the FSB over the country and the courts, about the ‘explosion’ of treason cases, and about the behaviour of investigators. 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Эхо Москвы]

Ivan Pavlov and his team took on the most difficult and high profile espionage and treason cases.  They defended Viktor Kudryavtsev, are appealing the case of Karina Tsurkan, and are defending Ivan Safronov, as well as many others.  They have been receiving threats for a long time.  Ivan himself is now awaiting trial, and certain things are forbidden him — for example, he cannot use the internet or a mobile telephone.  Therefore Timur Olevsky, the presenter of the programme That’s Our Work for MBKh Media, went to visit him in Petersburg. 

At what moment did you become not opponents of the authorities in a court trial but opponents of the state?

We don’t think of ourselves as opponents of the authorities.  We are defence lawyers and talk about the cases we are working on.  But the authorities, in the person of our opponents in legal proceedings, regard what we do with a fair amount of hostility. The way we see it, that is not totally correct, because one should behave in a sportsmanlike manner.  We perform a function guaranteed by the Constitution — we defend the rights of citizens who are being prosecuted by the state in closed cases.  Our participation in these cases is obligatory. 

But there are court-appointed attorneys.  They could do without you just fine.

Our defendants chose us, that’s their constitutional right.  The security services, the authorities in this case, should keep this in mind and respect our professional rights. 

Maybe you shouldn’t be defending spies and saboteurs—the authorities themselves can deal with them?

If that is your reasoning, then maybe even courts aren’t necessary?  The security services don’t make mistakes and if you assume that, then let’s save our money and do without courts.  Right?

How far away from that point are we?

Not far.  I don’t want to measure it any concrete units.

If you look at criminal cases, the percentage of acquittals in the entire country is 0.2%, which is less than statistical error.

For official crimes, where former bureaucrats are being prosecuted, former officers of the security services, the possibility is a bit greater of achieving some kind of justice and acquittal. 

That means that within the ‘corporation,’ the Constitution applies to a certain degree?

‘To a certain degree’ is an apt clarification, because it is still far from any ideals of justice. And even in those cases, it is extremely difficult to achieve any kind of adequate judicial approach to the assessment of evidence, the facts of the case, and the determination of guilt or innocence of the person being prosecuted. 

Let’s return to 30 April.  How did your day start? 

On April 30 I was in Moscow, on a business trip.  I had three court hearings, one of them was the well-known case about the attempt to classify the Anti-Corruption Foundation* as an extremist organization, forbid its operation, and liquidate it. And also at 9:15 on the 30th, there was to be a court hearing on extending the detention of your colleague Ivan Safronov.  The evening before, I was preparing for that hearing and went to bed late, planning to get up at 7, but a knock on the door woke me up earlier. 

 In your hotel room?

Yes, I always stay at the same hotel, near Lefortovo.  It is easy to get to the pre-trial detention centre and the Moscow City Court and the  Criminal Investigation Division of the FSB are not far, and now it turns out, neither is the Investigative Committee. 

Was it clear what was going to happen when you heard the knock? 

When they knock on your door in the early hours of the morning and there seems to be no fire … I had a feeling what it might be.  I asked who was there through the door and the guest introduced himself as an investigator from the Main Investigation Department of the Investigative Committee and that he intended to conduct a search. I got dressed and immediately opened the door for him, realizing that the day would most likely be a long one …

As soon as the investigator entered, I said: “Sorry, but I have a hearing at 9 o’clock, would you please allow me to leave for a while so that I can carry out my professional duties or at least notify the court that I am unable to participate in the court hearing.” The investigator said that he had already warned the court and that a long day awaited us with unknown consequences for me. He let dropthe word ‘arrest’ several times. I understood that the document that was presented to me contained a ruling to launch a criminal case against me under Article 310 (Disclosure of preliminary investigation data), though there is not usually a harsh punishment or imprisonment under this article. I began to assume that they had something else, some sort of surprise that would be presented later, some kind of procedural document that would allow them to detain me. According to the training manual, the investigator escalated the situation in order to unbalance me. This is a normal approach.

He did not come to a random person, but to a competent lawyer. The investigator wasn’t a trainee, was he?

He was the Main Investigative Commitee’s senior investigator for particularly important cases. The case was launched by none other than the head of the Main Investigation Department and the case was initiated by no less than Bortnikov himself, the head of the Federal Security Service.  

Is this all because of the case of the Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK)?

We took on this case not too long ago, literally on the eve of the first hearing. Ivan Zhdanov contacted us on 19th April. Through him, Aleksei Navalny asked us to defend him in this case. And the documents that we saw in my file are dated somewhat earlier. We even took a break to discuss all the risks that may arise in connection with us defending FBK. In our team, decisions are always made by consensus. There was not a single team member who doubted that we should do it.

You didn’t have the option to refuse?

We have a democracy. Team 29 is an informal structure that has no statutes. We try to decide everything by consensus. Anyone can veto and say: ‘Guys, this business is too dangerous, and we will not participate.’ I am proud of my colleagues who made a bold decision. According to the information that I have, not a single member of the team regretted that we were involved in the FBK (Anti-Corruption Foundation) case. We will continue to work, because we understand that our participation here is based on our experience of working with closed trials related to state secrets, and we know all the procedures through which people are prosecuted, which involves hiding certain facts under the ‘classified’ stamp.

Including the verdict? 

I have encountered cases when the judgments themselves were classified, but they were quite long ago. Now judgments are being written transparently. They try not to advertise them – the courts do not make them public – but recently we broke with this practice and made public almost all of the procedural documents that we had for the Karina Tsurkan case. This case is still relevant. There will be an appeal soon, we have already filed an appeal. This is a completely absurd accusation.

Is it possible to make documents public?

We believe that it is possible. The documents are not classified. Our opponents did everything to keep the circumstances of the case classified. Many procedural documents were marked as ‘classified’, and we did not touch them, but we made those public that were not classified. And one can tell from them that both the position of our procedural opponents and the position of the defence are clear.

Why are they prosecuting Karina?

If we speak not in terms of procedure, but in terms of the significance of what is done, then we have brought forward several versions of how the case of Karina Turkan could have originated.

We said that it could just be some kind of foreign intelligence agencies game that was able to plant these hard-to-read copies of documents that are being used as evidence by our special services, and they took them at face value. Of course, the documents are fake. We have thoroughly proven it. One of them is a copy of a so-called ‘agent’s questionnaire’ with a photograph of Karina Tsurkan and her personal data, allegedly dated 2004. Except for some reason, some personal data, the address, for example, was taken from 2010, and in terms of her education, it generally indicates 2015. The ‘questionnaire’ had been prepared in the Moldovan language, but with some strange errors: somewhere she is referred to in the masculine gender, somewhere the abbreviation of the Pridnestrovian Moldovan Republic is stated in the Latin alphabet as PMR. If a Moldovan had written it, then there would be a different abbreviation: RMN.

There were many substantive claims. You cannot make judgements on the basis of a copy, when it is not known where it came from. And the origins of this document remain unclear. An intelligence officer came to the court and said: “I got this document from my sources abroad, but I won’t tell you any more, as it is a great state secret.” Why should we trust this person? What if he was deceived? Why should the court trust his sources? Supposing this person really does believe that his sources gave him this document, and he trusts them, why should the court take his word for it if they can’t verify the sources of these documents for themselves?

I had a feeling about this case. Karina Tsurkan is a high-ranking official. I imagine that in terms of the media this was a very difficult case for you, because you had to convince people that this is someone who should be protected, that there is no crime, as you said.

Of course, those who serve the state with truth and faith and are officials in a lucrative position are not treated very well by society. It was difficult to drag public opinion onto Karina’s side. We are still working on it; we haven’t lost hope that we will be able to do it.

I hope that the legal community is following what is happening in the legal field, and that they understand that the Tsurkan trial is a pilot and that mechanisms of proof that are completely inadmissible in the criminal process are being tested.

This isn’t far off a trial without a trial situation.

Unfortunately, as my teachers, including Genri Markovich Reznik (a member of the Moscow Helsinki Group), always say: “We have no other courts, so we need to know how to work within these ones.”

And what does Genri Markovich say about your criminal case?

I am currently unable to receive information from the internet. But I hear messages from nearly all my colleagues with words of support and readiness to help. I am immensely grateful that the legal community was so fired up and outraged by what happened, not only on my behalf, but on behalf of my colleagues as well.

Putin always says that we don’t forgive traitors. From his speeches we can conclude that there is a category of cases which are, as they say, ours. They say, leave that and take care of rape and all that. But what would happen if someone in the professional community said: “Okay, we will leave treason and espionage to them, and we’ll deal with criminal and administrative law”? If they said to you: “Ivan, this category of case no longer falls within the standards of legal proceedings”?

If it is written in the law, then I would probably argue against the law for some time and try to challenge it in the Constitutional Court; I would go to the European Court… But if there is such a law, then I will have to follow it. After all, we rely on the law. When we appeal to the law, we are trying to restore some justice, which was completely lost in the investigation of these cases.

Who do they affect? I split my time between Prague and Moscow – could I find myself being prosecuted in such a case?

I’m surprised that only Ivan Safronov has found himself in trouble. Journalists are the El Dorado for these kinds of accusations by the FSB. The only thing stopping them is the corporate solidarity you show every time one of your colleagues is attacked.

So, when there is no display of solidarity, it sends a message that they can do anything they like?

Ivan Safronov’s case is also a test. They have crossed the line to see how you’ll react. They want to see if you have enough strength to maintain this solidarity over the long term.

So, by defending Ivan Safronov, journalists are protecting each other?

That’s right.

What’s happening with Ivan Safronov’s case? I’m guessing you can’t say much?

The case is still being investigated. It was used to open proceedings against me. Back in December, I allegedly divulged in Vedomosti the official charge sheet against Safronov. The document shows what a person is being accused of and how it has been formulated by the investigators. But I’m not going to stop commenting on the case. I will continue to comment on what I see, especially where there are violations of the law relating to my client.

Is it possible to keep secret the fact that someone is a defendant?

They believe it is possible, yes. Unfortunately, the people accusing me do the bidding of my main opponents in the case where I’m defending Ivan Safronov.

So, investigators are influenced by the FSB in the Russian Federation?

Virtually the entire country, including the courts, is under the influence of the FSB, if not in its grip. That is my value judgement based on what I have learned from cases where I act for the defence.

On Chekists’ Day last year, you wished your opponents a happy holiday and wrote that you hope for constructive cooperation in the courts.

I hope for good sportsmanship. This post is more or less due to the conditions in which we’re working in Safronov’s specific case, to how the investigator behaves. Things are far from simple with him. He sees us as the enemy and turns our clients against us. He might badmouth us to a client behind our back or say that we’re foreign intelligence agents or enemies inside the legal profession.

So, your holiday greeting was ironic?

Irony and humour are part of our arsenal alongside transparency. We know all too well that the cases we’re involved in would just be too grim without a sense of humour.

[Read more in Russian]

(*) — the authorities consider the organisation as a foreign agent.

Translated by John Tokolish, Matthew Quigley, Tyler Langerndorfer, Verity Hemp and Nicky Brown.

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