TALLINN, Estonia -- Russian authorities on Friday detained three lawyers representing imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny after searching their homes, his allies said, a step that comes amid increasing pressure on the Kremlin's critics.
The move was an attempt to "completely isolate Navalny," his ally Ivan Zhdanov said on social media. Navalny, 47, has been behind bars since January 2021, serving a 19-year prison sentence but has been able to get messages out regularly and keep up with the news.
The raids targeting Vadim Kobzev, Igor Sergunin and Alexei Liptser are part of a criminal case on charges of participating in an extremist group, Zhdanov said. All three were detained after the search, apparently as suspects in the case, Navalny's team said on Telegram. Sergunin later in the day was ordered to pre-trial detention for two months. Authorities have petitioned the court to do the same with Kobzev and Liptser.
Independent Russian media also reported a raid at a law firm that employs another of Navalny's lawyers, Olga Mikhailova. According to reports, she is currently not in Russia.
Navalny, currently in Penal Colony No. 6 in the Vladimir region east of Moscow, is due to be transferred to a "special security" penal colony, a facility with the highest security level in the Russian penitentiary system, his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh told The Associated Press.
"If he won't have access to lawyers, he will end up in complete isolation, the kind no one can really even imagine," she said.
If his lawyers end up in jail, Navalny will be deprived not only of legal representation but also of his "only connection" to the world outside of prison, Yarmysh said:
"Letters go through poorly and are being censored," she said. With Navalny being held in a special punitive facility in the colony, he is not allowed any phone calls and hardly any visits from anyone but his lawyers, she said, "and now it means he will be deprived of this, as well."
For many political prisoners in Russia, regular visits from lawyers -- especially in remote regions -- are a lifeline that allows them to keep their loved ones informed about their well-being, as well as report and push back against abuse by prison officials.
Navalny is President Vladimir Putin's fiercest foe, campaigning against official corruption and organizing major anti-Kremlin protests. His 2021 arrest came upon his return to Moscow from Germany where he recuperated from nerve agent poisoning that he blamed on the Kremlin. He has since been handed three prison terms, most recently on the charges of extremism, and spent months in isolation facilities in the prison over various minor infractions prison officials accused him of.
Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation and a vast network of regional offices were outlawed that same year as extremist groups, a step that exposed anyone involved with them to prosecution.
Navalny has previously rejected all the charges against him as politically motivated and accused the Kremlin of seeking to keep him behind bars for life.
Kobzev was due in court Friday, along with Navalny, for a hearing on two lawsuits the opposition leader had filed against the penal colony where he's being held. Navalny said at the hearing, which was later adjourned until November, that the case against his lawyers is indicative "of the state of rule of law in Russia."
"Just like in Soviet times, not only political activists are being prosecuted and turned into political prisoners, but their lawyers, too," he said.
Increasing isolation is something other political prisoners are facing, as well. Last month, imprisoned opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza was transferred to a penal colony in Siberia and placed in a tiny "punishment cell," his lawyers said.
Kara-Murza, 42, was convicted of treason for publicly denouncing Russia's war in Ukraine and sentenced to 25 years in prison earlier this year. His social media posts are regularly updated with messages from behind bars, and his columns frequently appear in Western media.
But in a penal colony in the Siberian city of Omsk, Kara-Murza is "alone in a small cell, where there's only a wash basin, a latrine, a chair and a table, and a bed that is strapped to the wall for the entire day," his lawyer Maria Eismont wrote in a Facebook post last week.
"He is allowed to have only soap, toilet paper, a toothbrush and toothpaste, slippers, one book. Letters, a pen, paper and case files are given to him for only an hour and a half a day. There's an hour-long walk in the prison yard, where he walks alone as well. The rest of the time he can sit on an uncomfortable chair or pace the cell," Eismont wrote.