Russia's top lawyers sound alarm about government abuse of the Constitution

A group of Russia’s most prominent lawyers have penned an open letter warning that the country’s constitutional order is under threat from authorities’ abuse of the law.

More than 50 of Russia's leading legal experts, most of them distinguished professors of law, have signed an open letter warning that Russia's constitutional order is "under threat." The letter decries what it calls the systematic abuses of the rights of citizens by authorities bent on silencing political opponents.

It's a small signal, but one that suggests some of Russia's most educated people are feeling a deepening disquiet over the country's radically-changing legal landscape and what increasingly looks like a deliberate official effort to re-purpose criminal law as a tool for intimidating dissenters and imprisoning political opponents.

"As people who are professionally engaged [with the law], we feel we have the right to state that on the 20th anniversary of the [1993] Constitution of the Russian Federation that the constitutional system of the country is under threat. The basic provisions of the Constitution and, above all, the constitutional definition of Russia as a law-governed state, have become, essentially, an empty declaration," the letter says.

Though the brief letter is a general declaration that mentions no specific cases, it was almost certainly prompted by the 5-year prison sentence handed to anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny last week, in a case that had twice been dropped by prosecutors for lack of evidence and only revived after he became politically active as a leader of the anti-Kremlin street opposition.

In a stark illustration of the political considerations guiding the case, Moscow's top prosecutor quickly ordered the regional court that had convicted Mr. Navalny to release him pending his appeal – not the usual procedure in Russian criminal cases. Many analysts say that most likely happened because the Kremlin wants to keep Navalny on the ballot for September mayoral polls in Moscow, so that he can be handily defeated by the state-backed incumbent Sergei Sobyanin before being packed away to prison.

Indeed, the growing numbers of Russian protest leaders and independent politicians who've found themselves hit with criminal charges over the past couple of years defies the law of averages and leads to a stark analytical choice. Either the type of people who challenge Russia's rigged rules of "managed democracy" tend by nature to be hard-core criminals, or else Russian courts are being guided by a political hand to enforce the laws – at best – with extreme selectivity.

"How can we speak about a law-governed state when we see a war being waged against the public influence of the emerging civil society in this country?" the open letter continues. "The word 'war' is no mere figure of speech in this context, because we can not help observing that almost all public institutions of power are coordinating their actions [in the assault on civil society]. This includes state institutions whose very purpose is to protect the constitutional and fundamental rights of the individual."

For the past few months, dozens of nongovernmental organizations have been threatened with forced closure if they refuse to adopt the self-incriminating label "foreign agent" – which connotes "spy" in Russian – under a new law that appears designed to eliminate all organizations that receive any amount of foreign funding and engage in any sort of public outreach that authorities deem "political."  As many as 100 groups have been targeted: from those that engage in human rights activism, election monitoring, anti-corruption activities, advocation of prison and military reform, and providing legal defense to political offenders to with those whose inclusion on official hit-lists defies logical explanation.

"The legislative work of the Parliament has acquired a distinctly prohibitive and repressive character," the letter adds.

The pro-Kremlin majority in the current State Duma, elected almost two years ago amid what are now widely-accepted allegations of mass voting fraud, has since passed a series of tough laws that seem designed to eliminate any organized, legal expressions of opposition in Russia. In addition to the NGO law, they include new legislation to curb street protests; impose tough criminal penalties for "slander," which critics warn will make investigative journalism virtually impossible; expand the definition of "treason" to potentially implicate almost any Russian who works with foreigners; impose potentially tough control over the Internet; and effectively criminalize any public expression of anti-religious sentiment or "non-traditional" – read: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender – sexual orientation.

The legal scholars' open letter charges that Russian law enforcement agencies "cynically violate constitutional and other legal provisions, including by fabricating criminal ... cases against those who criticize the authorities."

And Russian "courts –  which are the only authority from which citizens might hope to find protection of their rights – 'legalize' these violations by handing down biased and often patently unjust convictions on the basis of one-sided, and even falsified evidence," the letter says.

"In our country, citizens' rights have frequently been beaten down, and we see the further growth of that old anti-legal tradition best expressed as 'might makes right'. Law in its true sense is disappearing before our eyes …  because one of its most unshakable foundations –  the equality of all before the law and the courts – is being violated. All the institutions that are supposed to defend the law are being systematically degraded," it concludes. 

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