Russian security services have detained a lawyer who was working on a case connected to Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.
Agents from Russia’s domestic intelligence agency, the FSB, knocked on Ivan Pavlov’s hotel-room door in Moscow in the early hours of the day he was supposed to appear in court in the case of former journalist Ivan Safronov.
He was also just days away from defending imprisoned former Russian opposition leader Mr Navalny’s campaign groups against charges of extremism.
Mr Pavlov’s St Petersburg home and the offices of his legal group Team 29 – one of the few in Russia focused on defending individuals accused of treason – have also been searched by law enforcement.
Mr Pavlov, also represents Kremlin jailed Mr Navalny’s organisation in an extremism trial.
En route to his interrogation, Mr Pavlov told journalists he was being charged with “disclosing the data of a preliminary investigation” in Safronov’s case.
“They believe I committed a crime when I told you journalists that your colleague Ivan Safronov was being held illegally in Lefortovo (detention centre) on an absurd charge,” he added.
Safronov, a former journalist and adviser to the head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos, is accused of passing military secrets to the Czech Republic in 2017, a charge he denies.
Mr Pavlov’s colleagues at Team 29 said FSB officers had threatened him previously with jail, telling him: “We’ve had enough of you, we will do everything to put you in prison.”
Team 29 also said it believes the timing of Mr Pavlov’s detention indicates the charges in the journalist’s case are a pretext to removing the lawyer from Mr Navalny’s extremism case.
Prosecutors have requested that imprisoned Russian opposition leader Mr Navalny’s groups be labelled as “extremist”.
They have asked the courts to prohibit the groups from publishing anything online, organising protests and taking part in elections.
Moscow City Court is expected to rule in the coming days on the request which will officially outlaw the backbone of Mr Navalny’s political movement – the Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK).
Mr Pavlov’s legal team is handling the case.
“The fact that these raids happened the day after the hearing in Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation case do not leave much room for thought — the political motivation for these actions is obvious,” Team 29 said in a statement.
Mr Pavlov’s detention comes amid an escalating crackdown on activists, independent journalists and rights groups which has been intensifying since Mr Navalny’s return to Russia following his recovery from Novichok poisoning.
Mr Pavlov faces up to three months of arrest or two years of community service if he is found guilty.
He could also potentially lose his license which would prevent him from defending Mr Navalny’s groups in next month’s upcoming hearings.
“We believe that these actions are aimed solely at intimidating Ivan and his colleagues,” Pavlov’s colleagues wrote in an open letter, demanding that the authorities drop the charges.
The Kremlin says it is not following the case of Mr Pavlov’s detention.
Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesman, said: “We know about it from media reports, but we are not following it because we don’t have information.
“We don’t know the reasons for the detention, how it happened, and what the attorney is accused of. It’s not our prerogative,” he added.
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