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First blacklisted and now banned Meet ‘Agora,’ the first of Russia's ‘foreign agents’ to be liquidated

Source: Meduza
Photo: Zurab Dzhavakhadze / TASS / Scanpix

On Wednesday, February 10, the Tatarstan Supreme Court formally liquidated the inter-regional lawyers' association, Agora. Responding to a request from the Ministry of Justice, this was the first time Russia's judicial system ever ordered the closure of a human rights organization blacklisted as a “foreign agent.” The court concluded that Agora actively engages in political activity, which “foreign agents” are not permitted to do. The group says it will appeal the ruling in federal Supreme Court. Meduza's Andrei Kozenko looks at some of the biggest cases Agora lawyers have worked in the past.

The Agora association was established in 2005 in Kazan, the capital of Russia's Republic of Tatarstan, as the merger of several human rights organizations. Authorities in Moscow began to take notice of the group in 2011, when Agora's lawyers, without charging any fees, started defending people who had been fined and detained at public demonstrations. This was a rare case in the Russian legal profession: an association created outside Moscow that was becoming nationally influential.

Environmentalists versus neo-Nazis. Well before Moscow started paying attention, Agora's lawyers gained experience working difficult cases. In 2007, the group joined a much-publicized trial on the beating of environmentalists by neo-Nazis in Angarsk (a Siberian city about 31 miles from Irkutsk). In the attack on the environmentalists' camp, one of the activists, Ilya Borodaenko, was killed. The case dragged on for quite some time, and was later suspended. 

In 2011, however, prosecutors prevailed and the court issued a guilty verdict. One of the attackers, Evgeny Panov, who went by the nickname “Boomer,” received a combined sentence of 18 years in prison. Four of the neo-Nazis received 8 years in prison, while the rest were let off on probation.

Journalists versus neo-Nazis. One of Agora's other earlier serious cases was the double murder of lawyer Stanislav Markelov and journalist Anastasia Baburova in January 2009. The Agora association acted on behalf of the two victims. With the association's help, neo-Nazi Nikita Tikhonov received a life sentence, and his common-law wife and accomplice, Yevgeniya Khasis, was sentenced to 18 years.

Agora then joined a trial against a far right, radical nationalist group, “The Combat Organization of Russian Nationalists,” better known by its Russian acronym “BORN.” Again, the association acted on behalf of the victims and their families, winning guilty verdicts (including two life sentences). 

In 2015, Agora helped add an additional 18 years to Nikita Tikhonov's life sentence, because of his involvement with BORN. That same year, the association succeeded in a case against Ilya Goryachev, which the court then acknowledged to be one of the group's ideological founders. Goryachev also received a life sentence.

“BORN” ideological leader Ilya Goryachev
Photo: Dmitry Lebedev / Kommersant

By this time, Agora had developed a networked structure: 40 of its lawyers worked in 35 different regions across the country. The group's attorneys actively undertook cases with clear political implications and cases that promised to resonate socially.

The association maintained a good relationship with the media, as well. Pavel Chikov, Agora's head, became one of journalists' most sought-after experts on human rights issues.

For Russians with a weak grasp of due process, Agora has been something of a godsend. This became abundantly clear several years ago, after a sensationalized criminal case against music critic Artemy Troitsky. 

Defending an art critic who criticized a police officer. On November 10, 2010 (Policeman's Day in Russia), Troitsky took the stage during a rock concert by the band DDT and declared that “the most vile cop in Russia” was the State Traffic Safety Inspectorate's Nikolai Khovansky, who was the first police officer to arrive at the scene of a deadly traffic collision on Moscow's Leninsky Prospekt involving Lukoil Vice President Anatoly Barkov. Two eyewitnesses claimed they saw the vice president's Mercedes swerve into a small, oncoming Citroen carrying two women, Vera Sidelnikova and Olga Alexandrina. Both the women died. Based on Khovansky's testimony, however, the two women were blamed for the crash.

Khovansky's daughter was present at the rock concert and heard what Troitsky said. Her father then sued him, and officer Khovansky won a libel case in civil court. Troitsky lost simply because he did not know how to defend himself in court properly. 

When Khovansky took Troitsky to court a second time, however (this time with criminal charges of insulting an officer of the law and committing extremism), an Agora lawyer, Irina Khrunova, entered the case on Troitsky's behalf. With her help, he received a full pardon.

Defending the May 2012 protesters accused of rioting. Agora has also taken part at various stages of the “Bolotnaya Trials,” offering legal assistance to many suspects who ended up in prison, such as Alexey Gaskarov, Andrei Barabanov, Denis Lutskevich, Artyom Savelyev, and Alexey Polihovich

Adding publicity to the effort to find Oleg Kashin's attackers. Agora's lawyers have also aided in the late stages of the investigation into journalist Oleg Kashin's brutal beating in 2010. The group's involvement began relatively recently, and has mostly involved urging investigators to do their job. Thanks in part to Agora's extra assistance, it came to light that a businessman named Alexander Gorbunov (an acquaintance of Pskov's governor, Andrei Turchak) was involved in planning the attack on Kashin. In 2015, Gorbunov was arrested, though he later went free on bail.

Pussy Riot. After the members of Pussy Riot received their infamous two-year prison sentence, Agora lawyers started helping with the appeals. They tried and failed to get the European Court of Human Rights to issue a statement about the verdict, and they appealed the original sentence based on a technical error in the court proceedings. 

The runway collision that killed an oil company executive. Agora's cases were all politically sensitive, and they included a whole variety of trials. For example, the group defended suspects in a case involving the collision of a private jet with a snowplow at Vnukovo International Airport in Moscow in 2014, which led to the deaths of all four people aboard the jet, including Total oil company Chairman and CEO Christophe de Margerie.

Tortured by police. In another case that would gain national recognition, Agora represented the victims of police brutality in the village of Dalny in Kazan, where law enforcement officers sexually assaulted a man using a champagne bottle during an interrogation. There were many other reports of abuse, all of which were brought to trial by Agora against local cops. In the end, the police department was closed down and all the officers involved in the torture were indicted, receiving sentences of 6 to 13 years.

Terrorism and vandalism. The public seemed to be growing accustomed to the fact that any high-profile case in Russia necessitated Agora's involvement. Most recently, Agora's lawyers Dinze Dmitry and Olga Chadvar came to the defense of film director Oleg Sentsov and anti-fascist activist Alexander Kolchenko, who were charged with terrorism. Agora's Dinze Dmitry is also working to defend the performance artist Peter Pavlensky against charges of vandalism.

Lawyer Dmitry Dinze (left) and film director Oleg Sentsov (center)
Photo: Sergey Pivovarov / RIA Novosti / Scanpix

Keeping a music group above the law. Agora's Damir Gainutdinov managed to save the music group “Krovostok” from having its songs and website outlawed. (A Yaroslavl court had tried to ban the band's music and art of extremism with elements of pornography.)

Agora was one of the first organizations in Russia to be recognized as a “foreign agent” on the grounds that it conducts political activity and receives foreign funding. In response, the group canceled its sources of foreign money and demanded to be removed from the “foreign-agent” blacklist. This didn't help. Indeed, federal officials pretended not to notice.

The recent lawsuit brought by the Justice Ministry in the Tatarstan court states that Agora violated the requirements of the law on nonprofit organizations by “acting as a foreign agent” and “continu[ing] to influence public opinion.”

Agora has reacted to the court's ruling rather calmly. “For all the time [our] association has been operating, it's engaged in socially significant and universally beneficial activities. It has been under the constant surveillance of regulatory authorities, and at no point did they uncover any significant or inherent violations in our activities,” said Ramil Akhmetgaliev in an interview with Meduza.

Agora says it was prepared for this decision. The group's lawyers say they intend to continue their cases undisturbed. “Already for six months, I have not been the director of the association. It now has only one [formal] staff member. In fact, the association was mothballed a while ago,” said one of Agora's founders, Pavel Chikov, regarding the verdict in Tatarstan. “So, in actuality, the Justice Ministry is fighting a ghost. And not even that. It's a barge packed with gunpowder, which we drove to the frontline. And now these guys have made the mistake of attacking it! C'mon, people. You didn't think that, after 15 years of fighting the authorities in courts, Agora's lawyers wouldn't learn how to calculate their actions a few steps in advance?”

Nevertheless, Agora plans to appeal its liquidation in Russia's Supreme Court. 

Andrey Kozenko