Defendants need people who give a damn How ‘public advocates’ are disrupting Russia’s justice system
Since 2001, Russia has operated a system of “public advocates,” allowing individuals without a law degree (often defendants’ friends or relatives) to help defense attorneys build cases, including in felony trials. Recently, civic activists have started serving as public advocates, offering assistance not only to friends, but also to total strangers. Unlike appointed attorneys, these advocates can choose their own cases, and they’re free from certain restrictions on lawyers: for example, they can declare in court that they consider a trial to be politically motivated. Meduza asked three public advocates to explain what they do, why they’ve taken up this work, and how someone without a law degree but a direct interest in a case can help a professional defense attorney.
Staff at the “Defending Prisoners’ Rights Foundation”
In the early 2000s, when I was doing time in Saratov, after [the cops] planted drugs on me and charged me with possession, I studied the Criminal Procedural Code. I came across a statute that said that defendants and convicts have the right to petition for the admission of a defense advocate from their families or somewhere else. They adopted a new procedural code in 2001 that made this possible. Literally at that time, my cellmate was one of the first in the Saratov region who managed to get the court to let his wife act as his defense advocate in his felony case.
Soon, I also managed to get permission for my niece to serve as my advocate alongside my defense attorney at my trial. It’s important to understand that the law provides for a relative or someone else to serve as advocate alongside — not instead of — a qualified defense attorney.
The lawyer also did a lot to help me, but I’d realized by then that I couldn’t expect real results or comprehensive representation for the minimum wages my mother could afford to pay.
My niece visited me in pretrial detention and participated in court, helping me a lot. I gave her instructions, she brought me case-law records, and we worked as a team. I witnessed firsthand what an effective mechanism this actually is for defending your rights in our courts, where most of the cases are fabricated. It was only thanks to our combined efforts that we managed to succeed in this case, and I got off with the year I’d already spent in pretrial detention. I attribute this directly to the fact that the advocate working with my attorney was someone close to me.
Shortly after I was supposed to be released from pretrial detention, my cellmate’s trial started. I drew up petitions and statements for him to submit in court, so they’d make me his public advocate. A week after I went free, I was back in court on his defense team.
I came to the pretrial detention center with a court order and requested, as his court-sanctioned public advocate, a confidential conversation with my client, as required by law. The jail’s deputy warden ran out and said, “Kuryanov, are you high? Who do you think you are? I had you in handcuffs for a whole year here, and now you’ve been freed, and I’m going to bring your client to you?” This story ended with the lawyer and me managing to reduce our client’s sentence to a more or less reasonable term, and we didn’t even appeal the verdict.
In early 2012, immediately after the Bolotnoe Case, I moved to Moscow and now I work at Lev Ponomaryov’s “Defending Prisoners’ Rights Foundation,” and I regularly serve as a public advocate in felony prosecutions.
It’s vital to ensure at the early stages of a criminal case that someone who cares about your fate is permitted to work alongside your attorney as a defense advocate. When cases are fabricated, you have to work hard to build your defense, filing complaints against illegal actions, exposing the fabrication from the very beginning, and collecting a wealth of evidence in the form of contradictory responses from the prosecutor’s office and the Investigative Committee. When you come to court with these contradictions and all the inquiries into your complaints that were canceled before completion, you have a better chance of convincing the judge and compelling them to agree that there really are holes in the case.
Linguistics senior at Russian State University for the Humanities (RGGU)
I’m finishing my Bachelor’s Degree in “Fundamental and Applied Linguistics” right now, but I honestly lost interest in this by my third year. I’ve gradually realized that human rights is what interests me. I’ve been politically active for awhile already, going to protests and picketing. The last solo picket I staged was when they arrested Lev Ponomaryov.
At some point, I realized I want to be involved in helping victims of what I would call the unjust judicial system. I read on the website of the “Jailed Russia Foundation” that you can be a public advocate without a law degree. They have their own educational workshop, the “Public Advocate School,” where they offer a lecture course that explains how to help defend someone in court. In the winter of 2019, I sat in on these lectures, and immediately afterwards the cases started raining down on me, and I got to work as an advocate. In both the cases where I’ve been involved, so far, my defendants were acquitted.
Another public advocate and I recently helped a woman who’d been arrested at the March 10 protest [against Russian Internet isolation]. It was a pretty ugly case: a lot of procedural violations by the police. They beat her at the station, left her in a holding cell for two nights, withheld food and water, and didn’t let her use the bathroom. It was a completely wild story. We’re talking about torture. They didn’t present her with any of the charges against her. She’s accused of disobeying police orders after the demonstration ended, refusing to leave the area, and continuing to chant “Putin is a thief!” In this case, my main accomplishment was finding proof that she wasn’t arrested at 4:20 p.m., like it says in all the police reports, but was in fact arrested no later than 4:05 p.m., even though the rally ended just five minutes earlier. Obviously, not leaving a protest five minutes after the rally has ended isn’t the same as sticking around for 20 minutes.
Even hypothetically, I don’t accept that public advocates can take money from their defendants. For me, it’s important that I’m in the same boat as anyone who’s arrested and charged for protesting. I’ve been arrested myself. I’ve been in their position, and in the next couple of months I expect to stand trial, where my friend, public advocate Sasha Baeva [whose story you can read below], will help defend me. For me, all this isn’t just volunteering and charity — in most cases, it’s also helping a friend. Because maybe I’ve never met these people before, but they’re activists just like me — people who have endured the same difficulties as me. I defend someone today, and tomorrow someone defends me, and it will go on like that, until Russia is free.
It’s also important to understand that people on trial need money themselves very badly — especially when facing felony charges, and later I want to get involved in these cases.
For the most part, judges treat public advocates with disdain. Advocates can convey their arguments to the judge, but a judge is still likelier to listen to an attorney. At one hearing where I was one of the public advocates, the defendant's lawyer didn’t really do anything (he saw the case materials for the first time at the hearing), but the judge was visibly less annoyed with him than us. Public advocates also have one advantage: they’re not limited by legal ethics. For example, if I believe that my client is being prosecuted for political reasons, I can say this in court, but attorneys cannot, because they don’t have the right to get into politics. For example, if an attorney and a public advocate are working together on a case that is clearly politically motivated, the advocate should be the one to lay out the whole political component for the court.
I can state in writing that a case, for example, is politically motivated, and the judge has no choice but to enter it as evidence, which means they have to take it into account. This can play a key role in higher courts, particularly in the European Court of Human Rights, of course, because issues like political persecution are what primarily go to the European Court.
In the future, I plan to get a law degree. I’ll probably go work at a human-rights organization and continue volunteering as a public advocate in my spare time.
History senior at Moscow State University (MGU)
I’ve been going to protests since I was 15. I even made it to the biggest rallies in 2011 and 2012. On May 5, 2018, I also attended a demonstration and later wrote a bit about the arrests for the website Mediazona. A lot of my friends were arrested and brought to different police stations. They arrested about a hundred people, and everyone spent the night at different stations. A lot of public advocates came to their defense, but there weren’t enough for everyone. Right on the spot, we were getting advice from lawyers and human rights activists about what to do in court and how to defend our friends. That time, they didn’t end up needing the help, because almost everyone was soon released. But the experience convinced me to become a public advocate.
This winter, I attended the “Public Advocate School,” where human rights activists and attorneys explained how our courts work and how they defend people in these conditions.
Literally a few days after I completed this course, my friend was arrested at Domodedovo Airport for supposedly disobeying police orders, and he turned to me for help.
I think there are big benefits with public advocates, and they even have certain advantages over attorneys. If the job is a tired routine for lawyers, because they’re assigned to hundreds of criminal cases, they’re going to be unenthusiastic about a case where the defendant faces 15 days in jail, not 15 years in prison. For public advocates, however, every case is a new challenge. They’re in closer contact with the families, they find out more details about the defendants, and generally speaking they delve deeper.
A duty lawyer has to defend whomever is assigned, simply because they’re next in line. It’s different with public advocates: you can pick any case. Usually that means friends, or friends of friends, or God forbid relatives. As a public advocate, you can help: you have access to the case files, and you can visit them in pretrial detention at any moment, speaking confidentially in a separate room.
When I turn 25, I’m absolutely joining the ONK. I probably won’t get official status as an attorney, because that’s something a bit different. But one way or another I’ll continue doing public advocate work, because it turns out the cases out there are just boiling over.
Translation by Kevin Rothrock