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Russia crushes human rights group defending political prisoners and fighting state secrecy, including about war against Ukraine

19.07.2021
Halya Coynash

Ivan Pavlov Photo from the Federal Chamber of Bar Lawyers Press Service, Team 29 no longer exists

Two days after Russia’s effective censor, Roskomnadzor, blocked the website of the important human rights initiative "Команда 29" , or Team 29, its Director Ivan Pavlov has announced that they are forced to end all their activities. They will be challenging the false link which the Prosecutor General has drawn with a Czech NGO branded as ‘undesirable’ in Russia, however any continuation of their work would place staff and those cooperating with the initiative in danger of criminal prosecution.  The current regime is, in short, achieving the goal which became evident when Pavlov himself was arrested this year, namely the crushing of a vital project, which has played a major role in defending an ever-increasing number of Russians, as well as some Ukrainians, facing dubious ‘treason’, 'spying' or other charges.  Team 29 has also actively combated and publicized Russia’s mounting secrecy and blocking of access to archives and mounted a legal battle against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s illegal decree concealing information about military losses during so-called ‘special operations’ in peacetime.  This was one of many measures taken by Moscow to try to hide evidence of its aggression against Ukraine, including military deaths.

Team 29 issued a statement on 16 July in response to Roskomnadzor’s blocking of their site.  They pointed out then, and Pavlov has now reiterated, that the Prosecutor General has wrongly equated Team 29 with the Czech-registered NGO Společnost Svobody Informace which has been added to Russia’s notorious list of ‘undesirable NGOs’.  Their lawyers will contest this, but at the present time they cannot ignore the position of Russia’s enforcement bodies.

The next step in the attack on us could be the criminal prosecution, both of members of Team 29, and of its supporters: all of those who have given us support; worked with us; taken part in humanitarian and media projects. Unfortunately, changes in the Criminal Code which came into force in July this year allow for such outcomes. 

Under such circumstances, continuation of Team 29’s work would create a direct and overt danger to a large number of people and we cannot ignore this risk.  We are a taking the painful decision to terminate Team 29’s activities.”

The statement explains that lawyers will continue working on cases, but only as individuals, if this is acceptable to the people they are representing.

In an additional, but unfortunately logical, blow, they are closing all media projects and deleting their archive, including a hugely important number of reports; investigations; analyses of laws; case studies of political prisoners; court documents; and advice (on what to do if detained, etc.)  They are even removing posts on social media since these could also be treated “as ‘circulating material of an undesirable organization’ according to the same logic used in blocking our site”.

They advise all of those who have ever shared Team 29 material to remove all direct links and reposts since these too can end up being treated as ‘participation in the activities of an undesirable organization.’  They stress, however, that people have every right to express their views about what is happening and to mention Team 29.

It is important that Team 29 have pointed this out, however the scope of the repressive measures now imposed is so broad that many people in Russia are likely to be terrified to express any opinion publicly.  This, doubtless, is the objective.

This is not the first attack on Team 29 and the statement makes particular mention of the million roubles in donations received in order to replace the technology seized during searches on 30 April 2021.  That money will now be used to compensate for the losses now incurred by Team 29 members with Pavlov promising to account for these outgoings on his Telegram page.  Please do subscribe to this page which is the only platform which remains available https://t.me/kanalsobakipavlova .Please also sign the petition demanding an end to the persecution of Ivan Pavlov here

The earlier attack on Pavlov himself makes it clear that the equating of Team 29 with the Czech NGO is no innocent mistake, but a concentrated attack on a vital initiative which has annoyed the FSB on very many occasions, including over persecution linked with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. 

As reported, the FSB burst into Pavlov’s hotel room in Moscow in the early morning of 30 April, carried out a search and detained him. The criminal charges laid pertain solely to his work as a lawyer representing imprisoned journalist Ivan Safronov, with Pavlov in Moscow for a court hearing in Safronov’s case. The FSB claim that Pavlov divulged secret information about the case by providing the newspaper Vedomosti with a copy of the indictment.  Searches were also carried out of Pavlov’s home in St Petersburg, at the Team 29 offices and of the home of their IT specialist. 

Fellow lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov was in no doubt that the offensive against Pavlov “is directly linked with the professional activities both of Ivan Pavlov and of Team 29, specifically with criminal prosecutions over state treason and spying”.  He pointed out that the measures had clearly been authorized at the highest level, with the signatures of Alexander Bortnikov, Director of the FSB, and Nikolai Yuriev, Head of the FSB’s Department of Military Counter-espionage on the main documents in the case. 

“We view the events solely as revenge for our defence and coverage of our criminal prosecutions. We lawyers have on numerous occasions been threatened with criminal charges, including from the investigator in the Safronov case, Alexander Chaban. The same threats (to imprison their lawyers) have been issued to our clients and their relatives.” 

The attack on Pavlov was immediately condemned, among others, by Human Rights Watch and Front Line Defenders.  HRW pointed out that the charges could carry a three-month term of imprisonment, but also disbarment, with the latter probably being the point of this persecution.  There have been attempts over recent years to achieve the same result against human rights lawyers representing political prisoners in occupied Crimea (Emil Kurbedinov, Lilya Hemedzhi). In Pavlov’s case, the Russian justice ministry had already tried to get disciplinary proceedings brought against him in August 2020 over his refusal to sign a non-disclosure commitment in Safronov’s case.  On that occasion, the St Petersburg Bar Association had refused to take such action which is presumably why the FSB resorted to a direct attack.

Pavlov and his colleagues at Team 29 have played a vital role in very many cases involving dubious ‘treason’ charges, as well as in challenging the mounting secrecy of the regime under President Vladimir Putin, especially with respect to military losses as the result of Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine.  The following are just some examples.

Russia convicts Ukrainian library director of ‘anti-Russian extremism’

Putin’s decree classifying military deaths in Ukraine challenged

Breastfeeding mother ‘legally’ jailed for reporting Russian soldiers in Ukraine?

In Memory: Yuri Soloshenko, the Kremlin’s oldest Ukrainian hostage

Team 29 had also reported on the shocking case of Ukrainian political prisoner Oleksandr Marchenko.  It is to be hoped that Smirnov will continue to represent the Ukrainian who was abducted and savagely tortured by the Russian proxy ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ before being illegally taken to Russia and sentenced to 10 years on preposterous charges.

See: Ukrainian tortured in Donetsk concentration camp, then sentenced to 10 years in Russia

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