It is “impossible” to prove your innocence in Russia, says a lawyer



The witness places her text on the desk, facing the judge of the Moscow court, and begins to read aloud: “This man is a liar, he is prone to machinations, he is a member of an anti-Russian political sect.” 

The man is there, in court, held in the glass cage reserved for the accused. He listens to this woman who says that he must rot in prison, because he is against the Russian offensive in Ukraine. 

His lawyer, Maria Eismont, listens in disbelief. After five minutes, she gets up and interrupts the testimony.

AFP followed for two weeks Maria Eismont, 47, a specialist in the defense of opponents. As a new wave of repression descends on Russia, she talks about her motivations and tells the inside story of the system.

“This testimony does not answer the question. We are listening to a very strange lesson, a kind of rumination, a text that talks about people who have nothing to do with the case”, denounces the lawyer, in her high-pitched and slightly hoarse voice.

“Comrade lawyer, this text says that the accused, who presents himself as an innocent little sheep, took part in anti-Russian actions”, replies the witness, encouraged to continue by the judge.

The testimony to the appearances of continuous indictment in the Moscow court. The voice of the witness, growing louder, mingles with the clicking of the clerk's keyboard.

The accused, Dmitry Ivanov, 23, hosted an opposition channel on Telegram messaging dedicated to students at Moscow State University. He was arrested in April and charged with “spreading false information” about the military. He faces 10 years in prison.

The witness, Lioudmila Grigorieva, 62, is a researcher in physics and chemistry at the same university, the most prestigious in the country. 

“ Have you been to Mariupol or Boutcha?” asks Maria Eismont, referring to two Ukrainian cities where the Russian army is accused of abuses.

“No, but I have family in Donetsk”, the capital of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, she replies. “I know what's going on thanks to them and to the Russian Ministry of Defence.”

Maria Eismont left the audience disappointed. She regrets that the Russian army's account is used as the “a priori truth” during the trial, without any fact-checking.

“Even if no one gives a damn”

A few days earlier, Maria Eismont was in Boutyrka, a prison in Moscow. She came to see one of her best-known clients, the opponent Ilia Iachine, arrested in June for having denounced the attack in Ukraine.

“Our whole life has changed, there is a horrible war, we cry, we are demoralized, we see this tragedy every day. But from the point of view of the functioning of this system, there is no change,” says Maria Eismont in excellent French that she learned during the Soviet era.

“It's been a long time,” she says, that it's “impossible” to prove one's innocence in Russia. Suddenly, the lawyer stops. “Look who there is.” Behind her, Ilia Iachine's parents come to visit their son in prison.

The authorities are trying to isolate imprisoned opponents as much as possible and are increasingly limiting public access to trials. With official requests, Maria Eismont fights to maintain a semblance of transparency, while supporting the families.

“She's like a therapist,” said Valéri Iachine, 62, the opponent's dad. “She soothed our emotions, as much as possible.” Her son faces 10 years in prison.

A lawyer since 2018 after a career in journalism, Maria Eismont has already defended numerous critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in particular the NGO Memorial, a pillar of the defense of human rights and co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

In mid-October, we find her sipping a glass of wine in a restaurant near her apartment in central Moscow. Since the beginning of the conflict, the lawyer, who has three children, says she has taken in more than 70 Ukrainian refugees in transit.

She is not thinking of leaving the country, unlike the thousands of Russians who are fleeing military repression and mobilization. “I have people to help here.”

Maria Eismont very rarely wins her lawsuits. But she doesn't care. “I don't gamble at the casino.”

It tells the story of a man who, for years, had maintained the runway of an old airfield in a village in the Far North. Until the day when, in 2010, an airliner in distress was able to land there in an emergency. Without this man, the runway would not have been usable and the passengers would surely have died.

“You always have to be ready. We must continue to demand respect for rights and the law. Even if no one cares,” says Maria Eismont. She is sure that it will serve “the day when justice returns to Russia”.