“Even if nobody cares”: Russia’s only liberal lawyer

“Even if nobody cares”: Russia’s only liberal lawyer


Lawyer Maria Eismont looks on in amazement at a lost battle in a Moscow court: her client, a student accused of defaming the Russian military, is described as a “liar” and part of an anti-Russian “sect”.

It’s a typical court scene in Russia. The accused is isolated in a cage guarded by a police officer wearing a balaclava. The judge sits back while a witness unleashes hate speech against him.

Even before Moscow sent troops to Ukraine in February, the country’s judiciary was heavily weighted against critics of the Kremlin. But that balance has tilted even further in the months since.

And Eismont, 47, is one of the last opposition figures in the country to have seen the space for criticism shrink.

“What we’re hearing is a very strange kind of talk — a pontification,” she says, contradicting the testimony.

“It has nothing to do with the case at all,” she tells the judge.

The witness, 62-year-old Lyudmila Grigoryeva, is a professor at the country’s most prestigious university, where the defendant was enrolled.

And she insists that 23-year-old Dmitry Ivanov spread false news about the army in Ukraine and engaged in “illegal anti-Russian actions.”

With Eismont’s interrupt discarded, Grigoryeva leaps at it again, her voice echoing louder as the clerk’s keyboard clatters.

– Kremlin line “de facto true” –

“He supports people who hate Russia. He’s defending the scum of society… If you don’t like something, shut up!” she yells, pointing at Ivanov.

The former mathematics and cybernetics student was charged in June and faces up to 10 years in prison for “spreading false information” about the Russian army.

The case is linked to a channel on the social media app Telegram he created, which is anti-government and still run by several colleagues at Moscow State University.

“Have you been to Mariupol or Bucha?” Eismont questions the witness and names cities in Ukraine where Russian troops are accused of atrocities.

“No, but I have relatives in Donetsk,” replies Grigorieva, referring to a pro-Moscow stronghold controlled by Russian forces.

“And thanks to them and thanks to the Ministry of Defense, I know what is happening in Ukraine. These are two independent sources and they confirm each other,” Grigoryeva tells Eismont.

Angered after the hearing, Eismont complained to AFP that the army’s account of events in Ukraine is often seen as “de facto true” in Russia.

Before becoming a lawyer in 2018, the mother of three worked as a journalist for two decades, mainly in Russia and Africa.

– ‘A Terrible War’ –

But the five short years since have been marred by a historic crackdown on opposition figures in Russia and with it the exile of top liberal lawyers ready to defend them.

A key moment came in March with new criminal laws criminalizing the dissemination of information about the military that authorities deem false.

Some of the few remaining outspoken politicians were arrested. And since many of her colleagues have also left, Eismont has to take on her cases.

On a recent visit to Moscow’s notorious Butyrka prison, where she met opposition leader Ilya Yashin, who was arrested in June for criticizing the Ukraine offensive, she explained how the conflict has struck.

“Our lives have been completely turned upside down,” she said.

“This terrible war goes on. We cry. We are demoralized. We see this tragedy every day… and yet the system remains the same,” she told AFP in perfect French.

Proving someone’s innocence in Russia has been impossible “for a long time,” she said.

The Russian authorities have a habit of isolating detained critics, separating them from lawyers, family members and the press.

And Eismont, in turn, has earned a reputation for battling authorities for access — while providing emotional support to families.

“Look who’s there!” Eismont said, turning around when Yashin’s parents came to see their son.

– ‘People who can help here’ –

“She’s like a therapist,” said 62-year-old Valeri Yashin, the opposition’s father.

“She put us at ease as much as possible. She helped us. She really helped us,” he said, an achievement considering his son faces a decade behind bars.

AFP journalists later caught up with Eismont at a central Moscow restaurant, where she was sipping wine.

She mentioned that she had taken in more than 70 Ukrainian refugees transiting through Russia since the conflict began.

Has she considered following them – or her now-exiled Liberal peers?

“I have people who can help here,” she explained.

That’s her motivation, she says, even though the people she’s defending almost always lose. Winning or losing – that’s not the point.

“I don’t play in a casino,” she said.

She used an analogy to explain. She told the story of an airport worker who spent years maintaining a runway in a village in the barren north of Russia.

Out of the blue, she said, a plane in distress made an emergency landing. The airport worker’s careful and determined efforts had saved dozens of lives.

“We have to be prepared for something to go right,” Eismont said.

“We must continue to demand that people’s rights be respected, even if nobody cares. Because when justice is restored in Russia, we will need those skills again.”

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