By Mark Trevelyan
(Reuters) – Russian investigators on Friday detained three lawyers who have worked for Alexei Navalny, allies of the jailed opposition leader said, in what they called a move to deepen his isolation and deprive him of legal support.
Navalny aides said lawyers Vadim Kobzev, Igor Sergunin and Alexei Liptser were being investigated on suspicion of belonging to an “extremist group”.
Later on Friday, a Moscow court remanded all three in investigative custody until Dec. 13, according to a statement posted by the court on Telegram. The video published by the court showed Kobzev and Sergunin in courtroom cages listening to the ruling.
The detentions came as Navalny, 47, awaits transfer from the penal colony where he has been held to a harsher “special regime” establishment, after being convicted of a range of new charges relating to “extremist” activity.
Navalny, the best-known domestic critic of President Vladimir Putin, was sentenced in August to an additional 19 years, on top of 11-1/2 years he was already serving.
One of the lawyers, Kobzev, had been due to appear with Navalny on Friday in the latest of a series of lawsuits Navalny has filed against the IK-6 penal colony, about 235 km (145 miles) east of Moscow, where he is currently held.
“Information has just arrived that, of course, perfectly characterizes not only my proceedings but also the state of the rule of law in Russia.” Navalny told the judge on learning of the investigations against his lawyers.
“As in Soviet times, not only political activists and political prisoners but also their lawyers are being persecuted.”
Navalny has been in prison for two years and nine months since being arrested on his return from Germany, where he had been treated after being poisoned with a nerve agent in Siberia.
The Kremlin denied trying to kill him, and refuses to comment on his case or his treatment by prison authorities. It has sought in the past, without providing evidence, to portray him as a puppet of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.
Despite his imprisonment, Navalny has been able through his lawyers to post on social media and file frequent lawsuits over his treatment in prison, where he has endured long spells in solitary confinement for trivial misdemeanours like failing to fasten the top button of his uniform.
He rejects all the charges against him as politically motivated and designed to silence his criticism of Putin.
Navalny aide Leonid Volkov posted on the X social media platform that the three lawyers faced up to six years in prison if found guilty of belonging to an extremist group, “just for being Navalny’s lawyers”.
“This is an act of intimidation with a clear intention to strengthen Navalny’s isolation from the outer world,” Volkov said.
He said it would mean that after Navalny’s expected transfer to the new penal colony, “his lawyers will not be able to visit him there or even to find out his whereabouts if they’re locked up themselves”, a prospect that Volkov described as “terrifying”.
(Additional reporting by Alexander Marrow and Maxim Rodionov; Editing by Peter Graff and Diane Craft)