MOSCOW – The leading lawyer defending Russian opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny in an extremism case that could ban Mr Navalny’s opposition movement was arrested on Friday. This was the latest case of a notable escalation by the Kremlin in its longstanding campaign to suppress dissent.
Lawyer Ivan Pavlov was arrested after the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) searched his hotel room in Moscow at 6:40 a.m., his colleagues said. He was charged with disclosing details of a law enforcement investigation unrelated to Mr. Navalny and faced three months in prison. Pavlov’s colleagues said agents also ransacked their group’s St. Petersburg offices and broken down their technology manager’s door.
Mr. Pavlov, one of Russia’s best-known human rights lawyers, has often represented high-profile defendants in cases involving the FSB, a successor to the KGB that wields enormous influence in Russia. His arrest shook the Russian activist community because lawyers were largely able to continue working even though the authorities had stepped up their crackdown on the opposition.
“Ivan’s arrest is related to his job,” a group of lawyers said in an open letter Friday. “We believe that these law enforcement actions are aimed solely at scaring Ivan and his colleagues in order to force them to take an active position in defending their clients.”
Dmitri S. Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir V. Putin, said he did not know the reasons for Mr. Pavlov’s arrest and was unable to comment. However, he denied that recent law enforcement pressure on opposition figures, activists, journalists and now lawyers was part of a single campaign against critics of the Kremlin.
“This is not all part of a uniform trend,” Peskov told reporters. “These are different episodes and different cases.”
Mr. Pavlov heads a legal rights group called Team 29, named for the article in the Russian Constitution that guarantees freedom of thought and speech. The group’s clients include Ivan Safronov, a former journalist who was accused of espionage for NATO last year.
Team 29 said Mr Pavlov was under investigation for allegedly disclosing details of the Safronov case to the news media.
However, the raids came just four days after Mr Pavlov took over the defense of Mr Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure. On Monday, Team 29 announced that it would represent Mr Navalny’s organizations in a lawsuit filed by Moscow prosecutors in April to ban the organizations as extremist groups.
“Under the guise of liberal slogans,” said the public prosecutor, “these organizations are busy creating the conditions for the destabilization of the social and socio-political situation.”
Mr Pavlov said Monday that his team would disclose as much information as possible about the extremism case against Mr Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and its regional offices, despite the fact that authorities have classified the evidence as a state secret.
“We know very well what a state secret is and we know how to deal with it,” said Pavlov. “We also know what information cannot be classified under any circumstances.”
Mr Navalny returned to Russia in January after recovering from poisoning that Western officials believed was an assassination attempt by the Russian state. Since then, the Russian authorities have entered a new phase in their longstanding campaign to suppress the opposition, increasing their pressure on journalists and imprisoning or exiling Mr Navalny’s staff. Mr Navalny was sentenced to two and a half years in prison in February for violating probation because rights groups had committed a politically motivated embezzlement conviction.
Expecting that Mr Navalny’s movement would soon be banned as an extremist, opposition leader staff said Thursday they would close their nationwide network of 40 regional offices.
The crackdown on dissent has increased tension between Russia and the West, and has increasingly isolated regular Russians from the outside world. In response to the US sanctions against Russia on April 15 for hacking and other “harmful foreign activities”, Russia countered, among other things, by banning the US embassy in Moscow from employing people who are not US citizens.
The U.S. embassy said Friday the move had forced them to lay off three-quarters of their consular staff. As a result, the embassy will stop processing almost all nonimmigrant visa applications in Russia, for example for tourism or business trips.
Ivan Nechepurenko contributed to the coverage.