TBILISI (Reuters) – A top human rights lawyer who defended jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s team and announced this week he had fled Russia accused authorities on Thursday of a mounting campaign to purge the political landscape of people they see as undesirable.
Defence lawyer Ivan Pavlov, 50, gained prominence for taking on politically sensitive cases and defending people charged with treason or espionage by the Federal Security Service, the successor to the Soviet KGB.
He said on Tuesday that he had left for neighbouring Georgia, saying his work had become impossible due to a criminal investigation against him, a set of restrictions placed on him and state pressure on the legal outfit he founded.
He is one of an array of people to flee during a crackdown on supporters of Navalny – a fierce critic of President Vladimir Putin – and on media outlets seen by authorities as hostile and foreign-backed ahead of Sept. 17-19 parliamentary elections.
“An attempt is under way to purge the space of politically undesirable people,” Pavlov told Reuters in an interview in the Georgian capital Tbilisi. He said the stream of people leaving was growing.
“This stream until recently looked like a stream, but it now looks like a violent mountain river. People are not leaving one by one, but whole teams are leaving, whole media outlets,” he said.
Among those to emigrate this year are most of Navalny’s closest allies, whose network was banned as “extremist” in July, journalists for media outlets declared “foreign agents” or banned as “undesirable”, and several anti-government activists.
The Kremlin denies its opponents or critical media outlets are targeted for political reasons and says any criminal action against individuals is the result of them breaking the law.
Moscow’s “foreign agent” and “undesirable” designations are needed to prevent foreign meddling, it says.
Pavlov came under criminal investigation in April, accused of disclosing classified information in his legal defence of former journalist Ivan Safronov, who is being held on treason charges, which he denies.
This summer, Pavlov led the defence of Navalny’s political network at a series of hearings that were closed to the public, which resulted in the groups being banned as “extremist”.
He said he did not think he had been targeted because of his work for Navalny, but for his years of legal wrangling with the Federal Security Service. He denied being a critic of the Kremlin and said his role had been that of a lawyer.
His Komanda 29 legal outfit had its website blocked by authorities this summer and was accused of circulating banned content. It announced it was closing back in July. Pavlov said the writing was already on the wall by then.
“After this we realised they wouldn’t let us work and that this might be the last such signal that we need to leave the country,” he said.
(Writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Philippa Fletcher)