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‘They followed me all the way to the airstairs’ Human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov explains leaving Russia after the authorities made his job impossible

Source: Meduza
Alexander Zemlyanichenko / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Earlier this month, “Team 29” founder and human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov fled Russia and moved to the Republic of Georgia to escape felony prosecution for supposedly disclosing classified evidence from the treason case against former journalist Ivan Safronov, whom Pavlov was defending. Under the terms of the charges against Pavlov, he was prohibited from using the Internet or any mobile connection — even to communicate with his client. Now that he’s emigrated, Pavlov can speak to whomever he likes, and he agreed to tell Meduza why he left, when he hopes to return, and what he plans to do next.

When the police raided his Moscow hotel room and then his St. Petersburg office in April 2021, Ivan Pavlov says he began to suspect that the Russian authorities were telling him to leave the country. “One more signal” — the final straw, it turns out — came in mid-June when the federal censor started blocking the website for Pavlov’s human rights group on the grounds that it allegedly hosted content created by a Czech group that Russia has outlawed. This supposed affiliation with an “undesirable” organization raised concerns about criminal prosecution not just for Team 29’s own staff but also for anyone who supported the group (even in innocuous posts on social media).

“That’s when I realized I wouldn’t be permitted to work in Russia,” Pavlov told Meduza.

Asked when Russia’s crackdown on lawyers began, Pavlov recalled a prosecution from more than a decade ago and listed cases that are still ongoing, starting with similar “state-secret disclosure” allegations against Boris Kuznetsov in 2007 (he was representing victims in the Kursk disaster and ultimately won asylum in the U.S.), charges in 2018 against a lawyer in Krasnodar named Mikhail Benyash for allegedly striking a police officer (Benyash is currently released on his own recognizance), and a case announced earlier this year against a lawyer in Ulyanovsk named Irina Saveleva who supposedly leaked information from her client’s pretrial investigation (her client was Mikhail Sychev, Ulyanovsk’s former first deputy mayor).

The mounting police pressure ultimately convinced him to leave the country, but Pavlov says the authorities nevertheless “shot themselves in the foot” by violating the right to counsel so blatantly. He calls the “illegal disclosure” allegations against him and the pretrial restrictions that prevented him from speaking to his own client “a death sentence” for the legitimacy of the treason case against Ivan Safronov. (According to Russia’s Federal Security Service, Safronov passed classified data to Czech intelligence in 2017 when he was a journalist at the newspaper Kommersant — charges that Safronov and his lawyers deny.) 

More about Pavlov

No soldiers but ready for battle For years, lawyers at Team 29 have taken on some of Russia’s most hopeless human rights cases. Now federal charges against the group’s leader are testing the team’s resolve.

More about Pavlov

No soldiers but ready for battle For years, lawyers at Team 29 have taken on some of Russia’s most hopeless human rights cases. Now federal charges against the group’s leader are testing the team’s resolve.

When he finally started preparing to leave Russia, the surveillance team watching Pavlov did not intervene to stop his exit. A car even followed him to the airport as a kind of uninvited bon voyage. “I spent a week packing, putting everything in boxes and bringing it to storage. They knew all this,” says Pavlov. “They followed me all the way to the airstairs.”

Though he’s now safe in Georgia, Pavlov confirmed to Meduza that Team 29 no longer exists — disbanded after Russia’s censor painted a target on its members and supporters. He declined to say if any of his former colleagues have also relocated to Georgia, though he confirmed that he fled with his wife, Ekaterina Glukhova. Pavlov also said that former Team 29 member Evgeny Smirnov has left Russia, as well. 

“We’ll definitely be surprising you with something new,” Pavlov told Meduza. “Every new project we do is better than the last one.”

Pavlov says he managed to find replacements to defend the clients he left behind in Russia, though he repeated throughout the interview that he will continue to work remotely on individual cases and general human rights advocacy. From Georgia, he obviously cannot visit defendants in pretrial detention, participate in investigative actions, or join court sessions, but Pavlov says evolving information technologies could make some of this possible before too long.

In the meantime, he says he will focus on “developing strategies and new approaches” and “finding information” to assist in cases where he cannot be physically present. “I want to be useful to my clients,” Pavlov told Meduza.

This isn’t the first time Ivan Pavlov has left Russia under strained circumstances. In 2014, he accompanied his then-wife, American human rights activist Jennifer Gaspar, to Prague after the FSB revoked her permanent residency status in Russia and accused her of “threatening Russia’s constitutional order.”

“Now it’s my turn,” Pavlov says.

He has only tourist status in Georgia, but Pavlov praises the country’s freedoms and democratic traditions. As a child, he spent three years here. This is also where his mother was born and one of his grandfathers is buried. More than a decade ago, Pavlov visited Georgia to discuss his work at the Freedom of Information Foundation — an organization he founded in 2004 to advocate greater transparency in the Russian state. (Through litigation, the group successfully lobbied federal agencies to launch and maintain their own websites.)

“Several young people — acquaintances and friends — were inspired and they created their own version of the organization, using the same name, and it’s still operating today! It’s one of the biggest, most successful nonprofits in Georgia today!” Pavlov told Meduza.

Interview by Alexandra Sivtsova

Summary by Kevin Rothrock

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