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Russia detains lawyers acting for opposition leader Alexei Navalny

Russian authorities have detained three lawyers representing imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny after searching their homes, his allies have said.

The move was an attempt to “completely isolate Navalny,” his associate Ivan Zhdanov said on social media. Navalny has been behind bars since January 2021, serving a 19-year prison sentence.

The raids targeting Vadim Kobzev, Igor Sergunin and Alexei Liptser are part of a criminal case on charges of participating in an extremist group, Zhdanov said. All three were detained after the search, apparently as suspects in the case, Navalny’s team said on Telegram. All three later in the day appeared in court and were ordered to pre-trial detention pending investigation and trial.

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Independent Russian media also reported a raid at a law firm that employs another of Navalny’s lawyers, Olga Mikhailova. According to reports, she is currently not in Russia.

Navalny, currently in Penal Colony No. 6 in the Vladimir region east of Moscow, is due to be transferred to a “special security” penal colony, a facility with the highest security level in the Russian penitentiary system, his spokesperson Kira Yarmysh told the Associated Press news agency.

“If he won’t have access to lawyers, he will end up in complete isolation, the kind no one can really even imagine,” she said.

If his lawyers end up in jail, Navalny will be deprived not only of legal representation but also of his “only connection” to the world outside prison, Yarmysh said.

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“Letters go through poorly and are being censored,” she said. With Navalny being held in a special punitive facility in the colony, he is not allowed any phone calls and hardly any visits from anyone but his lawyers, she added, “and now it means he will be deprived of this, as well”.

For many political prisoners in Russia, regular visits from lawyers – especially in remote regions – are a lifeline that allows them to keep their loved ones informed about their wellbeing, as well as report and push back against abuse by prison officials.

Navalny is president Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critic, campaigning against official corruption and organising major anti-Kremlin protests. His 2021 arrest came after his return to Moscow from Germany where he recuperated from nerve agent poisoning that he blamed on the Kremlin. He has since been handed three prison terms, most recently on the charges of extremism, and spent months in isolation facilities in the prison over various minor infractions prison officials accused him of.

Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and a vast network of regional offices were outlawed that same year as extremist groups, a step that exposed anyone involved with them to prosecution.

Navalny has previously rejected all the charges against him as politically motivated and accused the Kremlin of seeking to keep him behind bars for life.

Kobzev was due in court Friday, for a hearing on two lawsuits Navalny had filed against the penal colony where he’s being held. Navalny said at the hearing, which was later adjourned until November, that the case against his lawyers is indicative “of the state of rule of law in Russia”.

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“Just like in Soviet times, not only political activists are being prosecuted and turned into political prisoners, but their lawyers, too,” he said.