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The Benyash’s case – state vs. defense attorneys

The Russian city of Krasnodar, the capital of a region located on the Black Sea coastline, is now the scene of a conflict which probably remains unknown to the holidaymakers enjoying their time in the palmshade. This clash, however, could have far-reaching consequences for the whole Russian society. On September 9th, when the illegal protests against pension reform took place in various regions of the country, Mikhail Benyash, a lawyer and defender of human rights was detained and beaten in Krasnodar. This assault has reverberated throughout the country. The lawyer’s fate will show the direction in which Russia is heading.

This Sunday in September was warm in Krasnodar, in fact it was still summer. Mikhail Benyash, a lawyer who came from Sochi, was walking down one of the streets. The day before, he received a call from Krasnodar police who demanded him to appear at the police station as his car was allegedly listed as stolen. Instead of following this order, on September 9th, the lawyer asked the prosecutor’s office, the investigative committee and the bar to explain the incomprehensible investigative activities directed at him.

His close friends advised against him going to Krasnodar that day. On September 9th, Alexei Navalny called for nationwide protests in Russia against pension reform. The authorities banned the demonstration and arrested Navalny. Before September 9th, the police in Krasnodar also “preventively” arrested several activists of Navalny’s local staff. It was known that the police in this city would mercilessly react against those who would dare to protest.

This was probably the main reason why Mikhail Benyash came to Krasnodar that day. As a lawyer, he has repeatedly represented oppositionists and civil society activists in courts. Among the persecuted, he has become a respected figure and a problem for the local authorities. Benyash rightly assumed that his legal aid could be useful to many people in Krasnodar that day. However, it turned out that he himself landed in a predicament of those who he intended to defend.

Detention that looked like kidnapping

“We were walking on a sidewalk, when a car started coming from the opposite side of the street. At some point it reversed and stood in front of us. Two men dressed in civilian clothing came out. They didn’t say a word about who they were, they didn’t show any documents. They pulled Mikhail into the car. They saw that I was filming their actions and told me to go with them as well. I sat at the front, Mikhail – at the back. He tried to call and they made it physically impossible, jerking him all over the back seat. They hit him on his leg which made him shout”, said Irina Barchatova, a Benyash’s friend, in an interview with Outriders.

Irina tried to film everything with her phone but the man at the back grabbed her neck and started to suffocate her. She did not know where they were brought. When they arrived, the gate opened and they entered a courtyard.

“Mikhail was thrown out of the car there. I jumped out and walked around the vehicle. The number plate was twisted so that the numbers could not be seen. After I left the car I tried to film again. They started screaming that I should stop and led Mikhail to the office. When the door closed, he immediately started screaming. After he left the room after a few minutes, I saw that he had been beaten. There were bruises on his face, he was holding leg and asked me to call an ambulance. Later they led him somewhere in handcuffs. We were allowed to see the barrister only late in the evening”, said Irina.

We are talking on the court corridor, waiting for the hearing to begin. Benyash’s friend stresses that he himself did nothing to justify his arrest and beatings. According to her, he was actually kidnapped and the only thing he was was trying to do was to make a call.

After his detention, Benyash was arrested for 14 days for failing to comply with police orders. The police report says that he voluntarily got into the car and when they approached the police station, he started to beat his head against the car seat and injured himself.

Benyash’s fifteen attorneys

On September 21st, when Benyash was in custody, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation initiated a criminal case against him for obstruction of justice. A case from May 2018 was also mentioned – Benyash, defending his client, was supposed to “shout at the judge multiple times”, instruct him and behave illegally in the court corridor. It is known that during this trial, Benyash was forcibly removed from the room at the request of the judge.

The lawyer’s arrest was supposed to end on September 23rd and several activists showed up at the prison gate in Ust-Łabinsk, more than 60 km east of Krasnodar Ust-Labinsk, where Benyash was detained. However, instead of a lawyer, they saw a custody bus leaving the building. It transported the Benyash to the Krasnodar detention centre where he was arrested again for 48 hours. A second criminal case was also initiated against him for resisting the police officers, Benyash was supposed to beat and bite them.

The situation with Benyash outraged the legal community in Russia or at least a part of it. 350 lawyers from various regions of Russia signed a letter to the Federal Bar Association demanding that his case is checked and that the whole situation is effectively clarified. Fifteen defense attorneys declared that they were ready to defend Benyash in court.

Henri Reznik, the commonly-respected chairman of the committee for the defence of attorneys in the Federal Bar Association’s Council, commented on the case of Benyash, saying: “It is an absolute disregard for the defence, as if Mikhail Benyash and his lawyers in the courtroom were simply not there. Behind the door there was a crucial witness, a woman who was with him, recorded his detention. She should testify. The court rejects all requests from the defence! Without trial, without going to a special room, without any justification whatsoever”.

The legal battle

What Henri Reznik spoke about could be seen on September 25th in the courts of Krasnodar. At 11 o’clock that day a meeting of the Lenin District Court was planned. The judge was supposed to decide whether to apply further preventive measures against Benyash. Twelve defense attorneys, including some from other regions, came to defend him. There were also activists, many of whom knew Benyash personally, because he used to act as their defender. However, the court hearing did not begin until 1 p.m.

“They keep us waiting here on purpose”, said Alexander Popkov, one of Benyash’s defenders.

At the same time, an appeal on the arrest of Benyash was planned at 2 p.m. in the National Court of Krasnodar. Under pressure from the lawyers, the trial there began with a delay but also resulted in a scandal. The judge rejected all requests and complaints from the defense attorneys, e.g. allowing the hearing to be recorded using a special court recording system. The judge first stated that there were no such technical possibility in a given room and rejected the proposal to move the hearing to a different location.

On the other hand, in a reaction to the request that Benyash is provided safety during the appeal, the judge read out a letter signed by Benyash which stated that he agrees that the appeal can take place without him. When the lawyers demanded to see the original of the letter, it turned out that the judge had read only a piece of it which was taken out of context. Eventually, the appeal was postponed until the next day.

The defense attorneys returned to the first court where the hearing began at 5 p.m. Although the proceedings were formally open to the listeners, attempts were made to not let anybody in. It was only later when some activists forcibly entered the corridor in front of the room. Shouting, screaming and even physical violence ensued between them and the court police.

During the hearing, the 48-hour detention period elapsed and the lawyers found that Benyash was being held in court illegally. They called on the police and the hotline of the Russian Investigative Committee to inform them that a crime had been committed in court.

The ambulance called to court diagnosed the detained lawyer with pneumonia. The court session ended with a decision to extend the arrest for another 72 hours.

Solidarity

Alexander Popkov, whom I met two days after Benyash was detained in Sochi, points out two things. First, that the case of Benyash is a challenge for the entire Russian state bar. Secondly, he stressed the importance of solidarity in this situation.

“I do not remember such an example of solidarity in the past. When they detained a lawyer in Crimea in 2015, a letter of support was signed by around 50 people. Now there have been critical voices, too. Some lawyers say that they have detained and beaten him not because he is a lawyer but because he has all too often presented his civic attitude in public. However, such an explanation is unacceptable to me. It is a situation in which they detained and beaten a lawyer”, Popkov explains.

Indeed, a part of the legal community sees Benyash’s case as an attack on the independence and right of the lawyers. Some of them fear persecutions as well. Hence – the solidarity of at least part of the community.

Activists whom Benyash and other lawyers defend in political matters think the same. For them it is a threat to remove their last line of defence against the authorities. If this line falls, the return to 1937, as they say, may become a fact…

“In my opinion, Misha stood at the forefront of those who defended the society against the lawlessness of the government. He is known and respected for his fight for the truth and rights of citizens. He defended people against the system, it was clear that he sympathizes with the predicament of every detainee. That is why on September 9th he came to Krasnodar, understanding that it would be a nightmare, that people would be detained and they would have to be helped”, said Ramzik Simonian in the court corridor.

This young, bearded, bespectacled boy knows exactly what he is talking about. As a coordinator of the Alexei Navalny’s staff in Krasnodar, he has already been detained several times. He jokes that he has not seen any of the protests organized by Navalny because he was in custody at that time.

But his laughter is bitter. “It’s a signal that the bar should start worrying. And not only them The region of Krasnodar is a kind of a training ground for various actions of the authorities. If something works here and it goes through, it can be used all over Russia”, explains Ramzik. “That is why this matter has such a resonance. Everyone understands that now “they have to get the attorneys”. This is the front line now: on the one hand there is the administration and the state and on the other – the society. That is why we must focus all our efforts to defend Mikhail as much as possible. Otherwise, we will lose much more. They will tighten the screw because the last line of defence against the state, the bar, is being destroyed in front of our eyes.

Amnesty International recognised Benyash as a prisoner of conscience, who ‘was imprisoned solely for his human rights activities’.

The lawyers lost the first battle: on September 28th, the court in Krasnodar prolonged Benyash’s arrest for another two months. It seems, however, that this is just the beginning.

The text was created thanks to the support of the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation.

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