In a Moscow court, lawyer Maria Eismont is looking on stunned at a losing battle: her client, a student accused of defaming Russia’s military, is being called a “liar” and part of an anti-Russian “sect”.
It’s a typical courtroom scene in Russia. The defendant is isolated in a cage guarded by a policeman wearing a balaclava. The judge sits back as a witness unleashes the diatribe against him.
The country’s judicial system was heavily weighted against critics of the Kremlin even before Moscow sent troops to Ukraine in February. But that balance has tipped even further in the months since.
And 47-year-old Eismont is among the last opposition-leaning figures in the country to witness that space for criticism getting smaller and smaller.
“What we’re listening to is a very strange kind of lecture — a pontification,” she says, standing to object to the testimony.
“It’s got 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 is adamant that 23-year-old Dmitry Ivanov shared fake news about the army in Ukraine and joined in “illegal anti-Russian actions”.
With Eismont’s interruption dismissed, Grigoryeva jumps to it again, her voice echoing louder while the clerk’s keyboard clatters.
– Kremlin line ‘de-facto true’ –
“He backs people who hate Russia. He defends the scum of society… If you don’t like something, shut your mouth!” she shouts, pointing at Ivanov.
The former student of maths and cybernetics was charged in June and is facing up to 10 years in jail for “disseminating false information” about the Russian army.
The case is connected to a channel on the Telegram social media app that he created, which is critical of the government, and still run by several peers at Moscow State University.
“Have you been to Mariupol or Bucha?” Eismont asks the witness, naming cities in Ukraine where Russian troops are accused of carrying out atrocities.
“No, but I have relatives in Donetsk,” Grigoryeva replies, referring to a pro-Moscow stronghold controlled by Russian forces.
“And I know what happens in Ukraine thanks to them and thanks to the defence ministry. These are two independent sources and they corroborate each other,” Grigoryeva tells Eismont.
Exasperated after the hearing, Eismont bemoans to AFP that the army’s narrative of events in Ukraine is taken often in Russia as “de-facto true”.
Before she became a lawyer in 2018, the mother-of-three worked as a journalist for two decades mainly in Russia and Africa.
– ‘An awful war’ –
But the five short years since have been tainted by a historic crackdown on opposition figures in Russia and, with it, the exile of high-profile liberal lawyers willing to defend them.
A key moment came in March with punitive new legislation criminalising the spread of information about the military deemed false by authorities.
Some of the few outspoken politicians who remained have been rounded up. And with many of her colleagues also gone, Eismont is left to take their cases.
During a recent visit to Moscow’s infamous Butyrka prison to see opposition figure Ilya Yashin — detained in June for criticising the Ukraine offensive — she explained how the conflict has hit home.
“Our lives has been completely turned upside down,” she said.
“This awful war is going on. We cry. We’re demoralised. We see this tragedy every day… and yet the system stays the same” she told AFP in perfect French.
She said that proving a person in Russia is innocent has been impossible “for a long time”.
Russian authorities have made a habit of isolating jailed critics, sequestering them from lawyers, family and the press.
And Eismont in turn has gained a reputation for fighting authorities for access — and at the same time for supporting families emotionally.
“Look who’s here!” Eismont said, turning as Yashin’s parents arrived to see their son.
– ‘People to help here’ –
“She’s like a therapist” said 62-year-old Valery Yashin, the opposition figure’s father.
“She’s calmed us much as was possible. She’s helped us. She’s really helped us,” he emphasised — a feat, given that his son is facing a decade behind bars.
Later, AFP journalists caught up with Eismont at a central Moscow restaurant, where she was sipping wine.
She mentioned that since the conflict started, she has hosted more than 70 Ukrainian refugees transiting through Russia.
Has she considered following them — or her now exiled liberal colleagues?
“I have people to help here,” she explained.
That, she said, is her motivation — even if the people she defends almost always lose. Winning or losing — that’s not the point.
“I’m not playing at a casino,” she said.
To explain, she gave an analogy. She told the story of an airport employee who for years maintained a runway in a village in Russia’s barren north.
Out of the blue one day, she said, a plane in distress made an emergency landing. The airport worker’s careful and determined efforts had saved dozens of lives.
“We need to be ready for something to go right,” Eismont explained.
“We need to keep demanding that people’s rights are respected, even if no one cares. Because when justice is restored in Russia, we’ll need these skills again.”
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