Andrei Sabinin: “You have to immerse yourself in the lives of strangers”

Andrei Sabinin, a veteran human rights lawyer, explains how the Russian state reacts to civic activism — and why defending human rights is impossible without publicity. RU

Dmitry Okrest
27 October 2017

Andrei Sabinin, Mykola Semena, and fellow lawyer Emil Kurbedinov (from left to right). Crimea, July 2017. Photo via Facebook.Andrei Sabinin, a lawyer with the Agora International Human Rights Group, has an impressive record of successfully defending people in high-profile cases. His clients have ranged from Mykola Semena, a Ukrainian journalist and contributor to RFE/RL’s Krym.Realii project to Lyudmila Bogatenkova, chair of the Prikumye branch of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers in the Stavropol region. Sabinin succeeded in getting the case against Viktor Krasnov, a blogger who was charged with insulting the feelings of religious believers, abandoned. Sabinin also managed to have an article about corruption written by ecologist Valery Brinikh removed from the Russian state’s register of extremist materials.

In short, Sabinin has seen it all. As part of oDR’s series of interviews with Russian human rights lawyers, I asked Sabinin about his work and what motivates him. 

What made you decide to become a defence attorney?

It was back in 2000. I’d worked at a university for a number of years, then as a commercial lawyer in various firms. I got bored pretty quickly — there was no scope for creativity. I’d never had any interest in working in law enforcement or other official bodies. I like to reminisce about my previous lives. Not because they were perfect, but because my earliest professional experiences still seem so fresh in my mind. Emotions don’t fade.

Working in the law seemed like an opportunity to do what I want, to choose interesting topics to work on. As I was offered new  cases, including criminal ones, I needed to qualify as an attorney. My first case allowed me to combine my interest in both business and criminal law. I spent several years in and out of court, representing an agricultural firm that had to prove it had diligently paid its taxes while simultaneously defending its CEO against a criminal charge of tax avoidance.

Have you ever doubted this decision? Have there been moments when you wanted to throw it all in and do something else?

It’s nerve-racking work. You’d have to be made of stone not to sympathise with other people’s problems. Whether you like it or not, you have to immerse yourself in the lives of strangers, while filtering all the negative stuff through yourself. So yes, you have doubts every day. And I’m not even talking about the stresses that you frequently encounter in your work but can’t talk about.

This summer, Pavel Gryb, a Ukrainian teenager, travelled to the Belarusian city of Gomel for a date with a girl from Sochi. After their meeting he disappeared, only to be discovered two weeks later in a pre-trial detention centre in Krasnodar, Russia, on suspicion of terrorism. How did you get involved in his case? What was most difficult about it?

I was asked by Gryb’s family to get involved in the case; they wanted me to gather information. I looked into the circumstances of his arrest and the details of the charges against him, but I can’t give anything away — I signed a non-disclosure agreement. I helped sort out some humanitarian issues. Now I’m directly involved in his defence.


The 19-year old Ukrainian Pavel Gryb, who ended up in a pre-trial detention facility in Krasnodar, Russia, in suspicious circumstances. Photo via Facebook.

What condition is Gryb in now, how do other detainees relate to him, and how does he feel about suddenly finding himself in Russia?

He looks OK, but is worried about the effects on his health of being held in isolation. I hope he will get the physiotherapy he has been recommended. He should in theory be returned to Ukraine, even if only to be charged and tried for his alleged crime.

How do you choose who you defend?

Everybody’s different — there’s no identikit client. And in the last few years, given the nature of human rights work, it’s the case I choose, not the person. You need to get to know each client: sometimes you don’t click, other times you can build a good relationship with them. We defence lawyers have a saying: “Your client is your biggest enemy”.

And that can indeed happen if you can’t produce the miracle a client might expect of you. You can’t just walk away from your obligation to defend them. The rule should be: don’t take [a case] on if you’re not fully on board.

Are there cases (of sexual violence, for example) that you would refuse to take on, on principle?

If you don’t work as a court-appointed legal counsel, you can choose your own cases. I have never defended, and never will, people accused of abusing children, unless there are clear grounds for believing them innocent. The main thing is not to identify with clients when performing your professional duties. Recently a prosperous and influential figure accused me of “defending gays and terrorists”. It was a stupid thing to say: everyone has a right to a defence. So the client may be “not one of us”, but the case can still be a cracker. 

The Kuban area of southern Russia has become notorious for its extremist Cossacks and attacks, both verbal and physical, on opposition figures. Is its reputation justified?

Well, the Kuban and neighbouring Stavropol region are a part of Russia where the authorities’ flirtation with the Cossacks has led to some ugly excesses, with minimal chance of repercussions. It’s unacceptable that the responsibilities of the law enforcement agencies can be taken over by Cossack militias — they can’t be involved in public order operations that could threaten life and limb.

In the Kuban region, the authorities’ flirtation with Cossack militias has led to ugly excesses, with minimal chance of repercussions

While acting as upholders of public order, Cossack militias are entitled to use physical force to avoid danger that would directly threaten their own or others’ lives. That is, only as a last resort. In other words, the law does not give Cossacks any special rights that other citizens don’t have in order to combat criminal activities.

The question is how they use the rights they do have. There have been an increasing number of complaints about their, to put it mildly, unlawful behaviour. They use not just the weapons permitted to them for self-defence, but also baseball bats and horsewhips. A lot depends on how well their remit and powers are explained to members of these militias. In any case, I have a feeling that the complaints [against them] are going to increase.

You also do a lot of work on Crimean issues. What’s specific to Crimea? How do its issues differ from those of other regions of Russia?

Crimea has rapidly discarded Ukrainian legal traditions, Local lawyers complain that they haven’t yet had chance to enjoy a sense of real competition in court procedures. And I believe them. Crimean courts inevitably come down on the side of law enforcement structures. It’s impossible to have even the most elementary success in criminal trials. The FSB has silenced any defence lawyers with access to the media, forcing them to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Russia’s law enforcement agencies seem to have carte blanche in Crimea. One judge in the region’s high court was heard to say “You’re not on the mainland here”

It looks like law enforcement agencies have been given carte blanche in the region. One judge in Crimea’s Supreme Court was heard to say, “you’re not on the mainland here”. On the other hand, a faint hope has appeared in the case of Mykola Semena, a freelance journalist working for RFE/RL who was charged with calling for separatism and undermining Russia’s territorial integrity. At the end of September, Semena was given a suspended sentence. I’d like to believe that this outcome was not just thanks to the efforts of his lawyers, but signalled some kind of trend towards less punitive measures.

Can we compare Crimea with the North Caucasus? How would you describe the work of the local strongmen there?

Crimea and the Caucasus are different territories. In the Caucasus — in Ingushetia, for example — things initially appear to be different. Investigators cooperate with one another and share information, but in fact they are extremely dependent on the authorities' will to investigate and the specifics of relationships between the local clans.

So for years everyone in the republic knew about the atrocities carried out by the local Anti-Extremism Centre. Senior officials tortured people with impunity until in 2016 somebody actually died. Even then, it took six months for the suspects to be arrested. And the head of the Anti-Extremism Centre carried on working for many years before anyone realised that his university law diploma was a fake.

You’re also working on a case where in March 2016, unknown assailants attacked a bus in which human rights workers and journalists were returning from Chechnya. What will it really take to bring this case to court?

That’s a difficult one. They already tried to send the court papers quietly to the archives and bury the case, but we stopped them. We raised such a fuss that foreign minister Lavrov was forced to apologise to the Swedes [one of the injured journalists was a Swedish citizen – ed.] . The investigation has dragged on for one and a half years now, but I can’t reveal any details because my signature’s on a non-disclosure agreement. Those documents I managed to see two months ago, however, suggest that nothing will happen soon.


In March 2016, unknown assailants attacked and burnt a bus carrying journalists and human rights defenders on the border between Chechnya and Ingushetia. All inside were injured; five were hospitalised. Photo via Facebook.I haven’t seen a single sign of progress in investigation yet. But the very fact that [investigators] have refused to question the Ingush leader Yunus-bek Yevkurov, who has repeatedly and unambiguously expressed knowledge of the possible perpetrators, suggests that no one wants to solve the crime. And when the case finally peters out, we can attest to the complete impotence of Russia’s investigative Committee.

What was the most complex case you ever fought? 

There was one case where the complexity wasn’t to do with the crime, but the defendant: he was a difficult man, a former official. I spent a year with him at a jury trial, and even managed to overturn the accusation of bribe-taking against him. But all my cases are difficult, because naturally I’m usually working with defendants who insist on their innocence.

Given the type of defendant you usually work with – and given the attitude of the authorities towards them – how easy is it to be open to people?

There’s nothing easier than being open to people. It is more difficult to be able to conceal yourself. But winning someone’s trust is an art. And maintaining it is still harder – that requires an uncompromising stance in your interactions with your opponent. But that’s only possible if your client is prepared for a fight, and doesn’t just want to “settle the matter”.

I suppose that you have studied the methodology of political defence work? Those who defended members of the 19th century People's Will revolutionary movement, Soviet-era dissidents, the work of the late Stanislav Markelov?

A lawyer may indeed share their client’s ideology. A left-wing lawyer is, after all, unlikely to take on the defence of a right-wing client.

A lawyer who has tools designed to defend either the "reds" or "whites" is a specialist with a particular skillset. So, in my view, the ethical line doesn’t run through the legal space, but the ideological one. In a lawyer’s line of work, [interpretations of] the law may – and must – be twisted this way and that to achieve the required result. From an ideological viewpoint, that would be seen as hypocrisy.

Human and civil rights cases are unthinkable without some resonance among the public – that is one of the conditions for a positive result for the injured party. When charges are politically-motivated or clearly concocted, the fundamental falsehood of some legal situations becomes all too clear.

All states have inbuilt provisions in their political structure to defend themselves from intervention, whether internal or external. But it’s important to note that there are few political trials in periods of prosperity, stability, and an absence of external threats.

How does that play out today?

When society is artificially wound up over one thing or another, then the state tries to forestall any possible political deviations. These deviations can be from the dominant ideological position or legislative practice. Today, Russian reality is such that there are a lot of legal cases connected with civic activity.

Recent years have seen a raft of new laws outlawing previously unknown forms of expressing individual opinion. There are laws on extremism, protest rallies, insults to the feelings of religious believers and public calls for actions designed to breach Russia’s territorial integrity. In these conditions, it’s useless to expect any drop in the number of such cases. On the contrary, there will be more and more of them.

Recent years have seen a raft of new laws outlawing previously unknown forms of expression. And the political motivation behind a court case is usually all too obvious

The political motivation behind an investigation or court case is usually only too obvious. The instant instigation of criminal charges, the use of harsh pre-trial measures such as remanding in custody, the rejection of adversarial competition in court and disavowal of defence attorneys’ functions – these are measures resorted to with such readiness that one is reminded of the ignoble tradition of the Stalin-era troika courts. The court mechanically follows the inquisitorial model, whatever the nature and scope of the crime. And we human rights lawyers are, of course, more pernicious and fastidious creatures than ordinary human rights activists.

You said that repressive measures are becoming weaker – what needs to be done to ensure that process doesn’t reverse?

High-profile trials can have positive outcomes if they gain wide public support and create a strong media response, backed by a high quality legal campaign – all these elements are essential. You can do good work as a defence lawyer, but remain unknown – or you can get the press and the public interested in your work. And then, while the inquisitorial court system may not buckle, it will begin to stagger and make mistakes. The time will then come to take a rearguard action and surround the enemy. That sounds like a joke, but it’s serious. State media are only interested in official clichés.

High profile trials can have positive outcomes if they gain wide public support and create a strong media response, backed by a high quality legal campaign

It’s rare to be able to convince state sector journalists of the necessity for support – it’s usually the other way round. A journalist can only help a lawyer by publishing material which exactly corresponds to what the lawyer gave them in the first place. And the journalist has no right to make assessments of the lawyer’s client’s innocence or lack of it, even from official releases issued by the law enforcement agencies.

Lawyers should be the elite in defending citizens’ rights and interests, but the state, for which the principle of primacy of law and independence of the courts are much proclaimed but fictitious, simply deigns to permit this “unnecessary” institution to exist. We won’t be left without work, but they won’t let us do our work properly. That’s the paradox.

How do you motivate yourself, and avoid apathy setting in?

Traveling to the mountains, spur-of-the-moment trips. If I get the urge tonight, I’m off tomorrow morning. That helps. Running used to be a good distraction: it got the other side of my brain working. Then I got interested in mountains — Elbrus, Kazbek, Ararat, the Alps, soon I'll go to Mount Tkhach in Krasnodar Krai. I’ve also got into making my own alcoholic drinks, experimenting with them.

What do your family and friends think about your work? Do you share the details with them?

I don’t ask, and they don’t tell me. I only share details with my legal partners working with me on a given case. My daughter, who's a journalist, also asks me sometimes. And my younger daughter, who’s still at school, sometimes asks me wisely whether I managed to help anybody who’s in trouble.

Translated by Liz Barnes.

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