‘We’re like a bone in their throat’ After seven years of defending Russia’s most difficult political cases, prominent legal group Team 29 disbands fearing prosecution
August 2021 should have marked the seventh anniversary of Team 29 — an independent association of lawyers, attorneys, and journalists known for tackling some of Russia’s most hopeless human rights cases. But on July 18, the group announced it was disbanding to protect its members and supporters from criminal prosecution. The shutdown came just days after Russia’s censorship agency blocked Team 29’s website for allegedly publishing content from an “undesirable organization.” In a statement, Team 29 said that they couldn’t ignore the risks associated with continuing their work and that going forward, their lawyers will defend clients in an exclusively personal capacity. In conversation with Meduza, now-former Team 29 member Evgeny Smirnov said that he and his colleagues have long been a “bone in throat” of the Russian authorities.
After nearly seven years of taking on some of Russia’s most difficult political prosecutions, the association of lawyers, attorneys, and journalists known as Team 29 announced its dissolution on July 18. “We’re making the difficult decision to cease the activities of Team 29. Lawyers and attorneys will continue to work on their clients’ cases exclusively in a personal capacity, if their clients do not refuse their help in the current situation,” the legal group said in a statement published on Telegram.
The decision to disband came two days after Russia’s federal censorship agency, Roskomnadzor (RKN), ordered Internet providers to block access to Team 29’s website. On July 16, RKN announced that the group’s site was blocked at the request of the Russian Attorney General’s Office, because it allegedly contained materials from an “undesirable organization” — the Prague-based NGO “Spolecnost Svobody Informace” (Freedom of Information Society).
Having studied the notice from Roskomnadzor, lawyers at Team 29 said that the Attorney General’s Office “conflated” their group with the Czech organization, adding that these conclusions “contradict facts and the law” and “are arbitrary and far-fetched.”
Though there is no official connection between Team 29 and the Freedom of Information Society, there is a personal link. Prominent human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who founded Team 29 in 2014, was the Czech NGO’s first president. Created in 2015 to “ensure free access to information of public interest,” the Freedom of Information Society’s founding documents also list senior Team 29 lawyer Darya Sukhikh. However, the Team 29 members later entrusted Prague resident Anastasia Moletotova with representing their interests within the organization.
In conversation with Meduza, lawyer Evgeny Smirnov, previously of Team 29, confirmed that Pavlov and Sukhikh haven’t been involved in the Freedom of Information Society’s activities for five or six years, and that there are no other connections between Team 29 and the Prague-based NGO. “Team 29 isn’t a registered organization at all and it can’t be connected to anyone in any way,” he explained. “This equal sign between the Czech organization and Team 29 creates a threat for both our team members and for people who care about our activities.”
Russia blacklisted the Freedom of Information Society as an “undesirable organization” on June 29, 2021. According to the Russian Attorney General’s Office, its activities pose a threat to the “foundations” of the country’s “constitutional order.”
According to Smirnov, Team 29’s website didn’t contain any materials from the “undesirable” NGO. Nevertheless, Roskomnadzor’s decision to block their site sparked fears of criminal prosecution. “We understood that any material created by Team 29 would simply be regarded as material from an ‘undesirable organization.’ Therefore, this difficult decision [to shut down] was made for us,” he told Meduza. “The authorities prosecute people for literally reposting material from such an organization. We can’t risk either our followers or our team members. Safety comes first.”
In an effort to protect their members and supporters, Team 29 decided to delete the entire online archive of its website and social media accounts. The group also advised people to delete links and reposts containing Team 29 content — for fear that the Russian authorities may prosecute Internet users for alleged “dissemination materials from an undesirable organization.”
That said, the lawyers at Team 29 believe that the decision to censor their website has more to do with their work in Russia than their online activity. “Our authorities have done everything to criminalize the activity and even the very name of Team 29. This is a kind of recognition of the effectiveness of our work and a compliment from our procedural opponents, who, not for the first time, have been observed in unsportsmanlike behavior,” Ivan Pavlov wrote on Telegram on July 18.
Pavlov founded Team 29 after the Russian authorities blacklisted his previous organization, the Institute for the Development of the Freedom of Information, as a “foreign agent.” The lawyers, attorneys, and journalists working at Team 29 specialized in taking on Russia’s most difficult political prosecutions, defending those accused of high treason, divulging state secrets, or espionage.
Team 29 members have acted and continue to act as defense lawyers in some of Russia’s most high-profile proceedings, such as the recent trial on designating Alexey Navalny’s political and anti-corruption movement as “extremist,” the FSB’s ongoing treason case against former journalist Ivan Safronov, the trial of scientist Viktor Kudryavtsev (also accused of treason), as well as the case of former top energy-industry executive Karina Tsurkan, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison on espionage charges.
Indeed, Evgeny Smirnov believes the increased pressure on Team 29 is due to the “cumulative effect” of their work. “I think that this is a cumulative effect. This includes work on the FBK case, on Ivan Safronov’s case, and on Karina Tsurkan’s case — and dozens of other cases, in which we took part,” he told Meduza. “There’s the saying ‘From the mouths of babes shall come the truth.’ But we have a saying that the state’s truth is from the mouths of investigators.”
“Ivan Pavlov and I have received threats saying that we’re like a bone in their throat. We’re like a bone in the throat not only of investigators, but also of other people and government agencies,” he continued. “Therefore, the decision was made to bomb us with all their might.”
In April 2021, the Russian authorities launched a criminal case against Ivan Pavlov on charges of disclosing information from a pretrial investigation. The lawyer stands accused of sharing a copy of the resolution bringing charges against ex-journalist Ivan Safronov with the media, and of telling the press about a secret witness in the treason case. Pavlov was banned from using the Internet and mobile communications ahead of the trial. If convicted, he faces up to three months in jail and disbarment.
Asked about the future of Team 29, Evgeny Smirnov underscored that while the group’s lawyers will continue to defend their clients, they still aren’t sure what will become of their media department. “It’s too soon to say. We haven’t gotten through the acceptance stage yet,” he explained. And while the group may try to challenge Roskomnadzor’s order in court, Smirnov doesn’t seem to think it would help. “According to law, the chances are good, but where is the law and where are our courts? I don’t know any successful precedents,” he said.
Smirnov also told Meduza that Team 29’s members plan on dealing with the problems at hand before considering launching a new organization. “I don’t despair, there will always be something next,” Smirnov assured. “The phoenix is born again — and in a better form, every time.”
Edited translation by Eilish Hart