IAPL: Faced With Jail for Defending Kremlin Opponents, Russian Lawyers Are Leaving

With colleagues imprisoned and mounting restrictions on their work, many seek refuge elsewhere

Less than two weeks before Kremlin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza was given 25 years in prison on treason charges last month, in the harshest sentence against a Russian opposition activist in years, his longtime lawyer and friend Vadim Prokhorov fled Russia.

Mr. Prokhorov had given interviews and made statements about Mr. Kara-Murza’s closed trial, seeing himself as a public voice for a defendant without one. But when the prosecutors and judge threatened him with criminal charges, he understood it was time to go.

“I held on as long as I could,” Mr. Prokhorov said in an interview from Washington, D.C. “As a lawyer, I’m useful only inside Russia. But I’m no use at all if I’m in jail.”

Mr. Prokhorov, who has defended major Kremlin critics including slain politician  Boris Nemtsov during a 30-year legal career, is part of a small but noticeable exodus from Russia of prominent lawyers who have represented opposition figures and activists protesting the war in Ukraine. In many instances, they served as a last line of defense for them against a legal system they and their colleagues say is being reshaped to punish dissent.

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February last year, outspoken lawyers have been branded “foreign agents” by the state and subjected to extra scrutiny and harassment. Dozens have been stripped of their license to practice law. Some are in jail facing criminal charges relating to their work or criticism of the war.

Lawyers and rights defenders say the departure of lawyers from Russia or the legal profession means there are fewer people able to chronicle the closed trials of President Vladimir Putin’s most committed opponents, such as Mr. Kara-Murza or Alexei Navalny, who is in prison serving a sentence of 11½ years and says he faces new charges that could leave him behind bars for life.

With access to courtrooms that host secret trials, lawyers can bear witness to the ways the state punishes dissent and can gather evidence for possible future tribunals of Russian prosecutors and judges aiding the Kremlin, they say.

“Their presence and their work are extremely important,” Evgenia Kara-Murza, Mr. Kara-Murza’s wife, said in a phone interview from the U.S., where she resides with the couple’s three children. “They monitor these cases, they put everything down on paper, they lodge appeals with international institutions. That builds a legal basis for prosecuting these people later on.”