Svetlana Sidorkina: “Defending the innocent is the most difficult thing of all”

Svetlana Sidorkina, one of Russia’s leading human rights lawyers, talks about how hard the Russian justice system can be to beat. RU

Tatyana Dvornikova
8 February 2018

Lawyer Svetlana Sidorkina and Alexander Kolchenko. Photo: Anton Naumlyuk. All rights reserved.Russian investigators are becoming ever more skilled at prosecuting citizens for political reasons. Every new criminal case launched against Russian protesters means more experience for the law enforcement apparatus, but diminishing interest from the wider public.

Svetlana Sidorkina, a lawyer for the Agora international human rights group, has been defending people who have fallen victim to politically motivated prosecutions throughout her entire career. Sidorkina’s clients have included public figures, social commentators, political activists of various stripes, individuals who played a part in the 2012 Bolotnaya Square protests and the March 2017 anti-corruption rally, as well as those who have been imprisoned for reposting content on social media.

As part of oDR’s series on human rights lawyers in the post-Soviet space, I spoke to Svetlana Sidorkina about her career, her defendants and how Russia’s law enforcement are upping their game.

You’re a historian by training. How did you end up in the legal profession?

Before entering the History and Philology Faculty at Mari State University, I’d applied to the Law Faculty at Kazan — but didn’t get in. There were a hundred candidates per place. History was a subject I’d always loved, and I went down the history route so as not to lose any time. Doing law was my biggest dream after leaving school, so I subsequently retrained and worked my way into the profession I was initially desperate to enter.

When you chose law, did you have an idea of what your work would specifically involve?

No. When I was finishing school, I didn’t have a clue what being a lawyer entailed. My parents were ordinary people: my mother worked as an accountant all her life, my father was a mechanical engineer, and they had no links to the legal profession. My ideas about the work of a lawyer came from novels, they were little more than childish pipe dreams about good and justice and helping people out. Now I see things entirely differently. The work is very challenging. If I’d had a better understanding of how things really were, perhaps I’d never have gone into the profession. Only half of what I dreamed of came true.

What cases have proven the most challenging for you?

The case of Dmitry Buchenkov, the last of the Bolotnaya Square defendants, was one of the most difficult [Buchenkov fled Russia in November 2017]. It was difficult because he’s innocent! Dima didn’t do the things he stood accused of doing, and defending an innocent man is the hardest thing of all. The burden of responsibility for the court’s eventual ruling lies on you. One would think that the final word doesn’t rest with the defence, but, in presenting the defendant’s alibi and arguing his innocence, you nonetheless take on a very significant degree of responsibility — more so than if you knew that the person had actually committed some sort of act.


Dmitry Buchenkov. Source: Vkontakte.In cases like this you make the highest demands on yourself. Even the knowledge that you’ve done everything in your power in the given situation isn’t enough to settle your mind. An internal struggle plays itself out inside your head — you can’t help but think you could have done more.

From the point of view of Russian legislation, will he ever be able to return to Russia?

No. Dmitry has said that he’s requested political asylum in an EU country. The very essence of political asylum testifies to this fact — it is intended to protect people who cannot return to their native country because they risk prosecution there.

How do you assess the role of public campaigns in Buchenkov’s case?

I believe that in this particular instance the public campaign could have been broader and further-reaching. But the Bolotnaya Square case is now in its fifth year and I completely understand that people are tired of following it. Even the Bolotnaya defendants who’ve already been released rarely attended the trial — people find it hard to dive into those events all over again.

I believe the judge would have returned a guilty verdict to Buchenkov

Buchenkov was released from jail and put under house arrest. How do you interpret this change of sanction on Dmitry?

We made repeated reference to the violations that occurred when his detention term was extended. Plus there was the ECHR ruling regarding Buchenkov. The ECHR invoked Russian judicial practices in other cases and, reasoning by analogy, ruled that extending the preventive measure in the form of detention would be unlawful. All this was articulated at the court hearing.


Ildar Dadin. Photo CC BY-SA 3.0: Wiki. Some rights reserved.The high-profile case of Ildar Dadin was going on at the same time, and it played its own role — Dadin was acquitted. By the spring of 2017, the investigation into the Buchenkov case was almost over, and there were no compelling reasons for further detention. In commuting Buchenkov’s detention to house arrest, the court invoked both Russian practice, which exists in the national courts, and the practice of the ECHR. As I see it, all these factors played a collective role.

There was a good deal of talk back then to the effect that this was a politically motivated decision linked to the fact that Sergey Kirienko had joined the Presidential Administration. What’s your take on such speculation?

Yes, that sort of talk did occur, but in Buchenkov’s case I’m inclined to believe that the court made a decision based on legal grounds. In the autumn of 2017, however, the judge began to rush things along — he wouldn’t let the defence present the full volume of the scheduled evidence. The court set about creating obstacles for the defence. I came to believe that the judge was siding with the prosecution — this opinion was based on the manner of the questioning and on how often the defence’s motions were being rejected. I believe the judge would have returned a guilty verdict to Buchenkov.

Have you been involved in any other cases where person in the dock was completely innocent?

Yes, there was a robbery case I came to be involved in at the stage of appeal. The accused wasn’t even at the crime scene but still ended up being sentenced to eight years in prison

You’ve often defended individuals with leftist and anti-fascist views. Do you share in their convictions and values?

I’ve had many left-leaning clients, that’s true. If anything, though, this is down to the fact that until recently it is leftists who’ve been at the vanguard of dissent and who’ve adopted active civic stances. As for me, I don’t subscribe to any particular political views. I set store by universal humanistic convictions. Convictions intrinsic to all and sundry. Convictions that concern peace on earth, however banal that may sound. I care about ecology; I care about the rights of society’s most vulnerable people.

Have you had any clients whose views didn’t coincide with yours?

There was the journalist Boris Stomakhin, whose views I don’t share. But the very long sentence meted out to him — equivalent to sentences given for violent offences, for crimes against life and health — was unjust [Stomakhin received a five-year sentence for inciting hatred and making defamatory statements]. Everyone has the right to a subjective opinion — something I took care to stress when defending him.

The most difficult place to uphold justice is Mordovia — there’s a very strong clan culture there and it evolves from generation to generation

Can it be argued that the volume of politically motivated cases increased at some particular juncture?

That’s correct, yes. First and foremost this is to do with the fact that the situation in the country at large has changed. I’ve been working as a lawyer since 2002. One of the first politically motivated cases was that of the Mari priest Vitaly Tanakov, convicted under Article 282 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (incitement of hatred or enmity, as well as abasement of dignity of a person or a group of persons on the basis of sex, race, nationality, language, origin, or attitude to religion). Tanakov was sentenced to 120 hours’ compulsory labour for distributing a tract entitled “A Priest Speaks”. Back then, people charged under this article wouldn’t be imprisoned — you’d be looking at a suspended sentence or forced labour. Now we think of that period as the “vegetarian era”.

How do you assess the role of the ECHR over the past ten years?

The ECHR has a certain category of priority cases, the Bolotnaya Square and Pussy Riot cases among them. In my opinion, the ECHR responds to developments in Russia without undue delay. But the real problem lies elsewhere. Everyone was waiting to see what ruling would be made by Russia’s Supreme Court in the case of Bolotnaya Square defendant Yaroslav Belousov. The European Court acknowledged that the trial of Belousov was marred by violations. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court failed to take the ECHR’s arguments into account. I fully endorse the stance of lawyer Dmitry Agranovsky, who maintains that this is unlawful. I’d like to see Russia observe and fully implement the international treaties it has signed within the framework of the Convention on Human Rights.

2017 saw you defend the participants of the anti-corruption rally of 26 March. How far did this differ from the Bolotnaya Square trials?

As a result of the experience they gained during their work on Bolotnaya Square, the investigators completely changed their tactics when it came to the 26 March case, taking into account all the failings that were allowed to take place during the preliminary investigation stage. In the Bolotnaya Square case, the defence team repeatedly drew the court’s attention to the fact that the investigation used video evidence obtained in violation of the requirements of the Criminal Procedure Code. In the 26 March case, meanwhile, on-the-ground footage was captured by operatives of the Main Directorate of the Internal Affairs Ministry — there was an entire unit operating on the streets. They needed the footage so they could subsequently use it as evidence for each of the subsequent proceedings that were disjoined from the parent case.

The arguments put forward by the defence regarding the video material were taken into account by the investigation. Today it is very difficult to challenge the arguments based on the Internal Affairs Ministry footage. And so the argument I used in the Stanislav Zimovets case was that the investigators took a video clip from an extensive volume of video footage without checking whether any editing had or had not taken place. But the court still rejected my motion and ruled that these videos constituted admissible evidence.


Stanislav Zimovets. Source: VKontakte.After the spring protests, the investigation also realised that if this turned into a high-profile criminal case à la Bolotnaya Square, it would provoke a major public reaction, which could influence the trial itself. Therefore, given the large number of defendants, they split it into individual cases and brought charges only under Article 318 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“use of violence that does not endanger human life or health, or threats to use violence against a representative of the authority, or his relatives, in connection with the discharge by his official duties”).

In terms of Bolotnaya Square, we also discussed the fact that the guys who’d already served their time were unlawfully charged under Article 212, Part 2 of the Criminal Code (involvement in mass riots), since in fact there were no riots on Bolotnaya Square on 6 May 2012. If you want an example of a riot, think back to the events on Moscow’s Manezhnaya Square in 2010. Bolotnaya Square, conversely, was full of peaceful civilians defending themselves against the police.

Do human rights defenders and activists enjoy tried-and-tested assistance mechanisms?

Yes, after the events on Bolotnaya Square, we managed to consolidate the efforts of those who help individuals convicted for “political” offences. The Stanislav Zimovets case is emblematic in this respect. Zimovets is from a low-income family, and his relatives had no material resources to support him. And so help came pouring in from all and sundry. Human rights organisations and civil activists contributed money, sent care packages and wrote letters, with OVD-Info, the Moscow Public Monitoring Commission, Agora and Open Russia all lending their assistance.

After the events on Bolotnaya Square, we managed to consolidate the efforts of those who help individuals convicted for “political” offences

This came as a total surprise for Zimovets, who thought that he was completely on his own. There was a court-appointed lawyer at the investigation stage and for a long time Zimovets could not be found, his relatives were helpless. And when he found out that people were looking for him, that many wanted to lend a hand, it was a total shock for him! Why do total strangers come to the assistance of someone from out in the sticks? This was an absolute tonic for him, of course, and served to bolster his convictions, which, though perhaps a little confused and naive, remain highly sincere nonetheless. He’s currently serving time in Correctional Colony No. 12, in Volgograd oblast.

You were not allowed to visit Zimovets in prison for a long time. Why?

There have been two situations where I found myself officially barred from seeing my clients. Representatives of the Investigative Committee forbade me from visiting Buchenkov, while the Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN) stopped me from seeing Stanislav Zimovets. The latter alleged that I had to present documents certifying that I was his defence counsel. This is absolutely contrary to the law. The Moscow Bar Association has been doing battle with the Federal Penitentiary Service over this issue for a long time now, but FSIN continues to demand that, when visiting detention centres in Moscow, lawyers obtain certification from the investigation or the court that we’re involved in the case in question.

Do comparable problems arise when it comes to visiting prison colonies?

I’ve visited a good many of them, including colonies in Komi, in the Kirov, Bryansk, Ryazan, Yaroslavl, Tver, Arkhangelsk and Irkutsk oblasts, as well as those in the Republic of Mordovia and other regions of Russia. Each place has its own idiosyncrasies. The most difficult place to uphold justice is Mordovia — there’s a very strong clan culture there and it evolves from generation to generation. They’ll tell you in almost every colony that their fathers, mothers, grandfathers worked here. Family ties are very strong. And the arrival of a Moscow lawyer raises many questions, as in, why make such a long journey? They start checking the lawyer database, and this takes a long time: until they check your personal info, you won’t be allowed to see the client.

On the other hand, there’s Mordovia’s colony No. 10 — in terms of granting lawyers access to their clients, it serves as an example for the rest. When you’re dealing with that particular colony, you don’t need to spend a lot of time preparing your documentation and getting it green-lighted. But at the same time, there’s been a lot of complaints from prisoners about working conditions and detention conditions in cell-type units (PKTs).

Over the course of your work, have you encountered fair-minded judges, investigators and prosecutors?

Fair-minded investigators and judges do exist, of course. But unfortunately neither the investigation nor the court are independent. The investigator says that he’s acting under the orders of his superiors, while the judge is dependent on rulings made by the higher courts. And in high-profile cases you can really feel this.


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