On the occasion of International Women’s Day, the Observatory presents the portrait of Tamilla Imanova, a young woman lawyer who had to leave Russia because of her commitment to human rights.
26 years old lawyer Tamilla Imanova had been working for 4 years at the Memorial Human Rights Centre, one of the “Memorial” NGOs in Russia when she had to flee her country. The Observatory has had the opportunity to interview lawyer Imanova and ask her about her career, the practice of law, the impact of the war in Ukraine and the gender equality in Russia, among other matters.
What made you become a human rights lawyer? Tell us about your career.
I knew that I wanted to do something useful for the society. I joined Memorial Human Rights Centre because it is one of the leading Russian NGOs who has submitted thousands of human rights violation cases before the European Court of Human Rights. I have been part of a very professional team of lawyers doing mostly international litigation in all sorts of cases, winning last year my first case before the ECtHR.
To talk about our work, it is necessary to distinguish between before and after the start of the war in Ukraine. Before 2022, Russia was a member of the Council of Europe and was bounded by the decisions of the EctHR. This mechanism has been used extensively by us human rights lawyers in Russia because of its effectiveness. Even assuming that in certain political cases Russia ignored the EctHR’s judgments, it was the most effective judicial procedure to obtain recognition and compensation for the violation of rights.
Why and when did you decide to flee Russia?
As soon as the war started the situation became much worse, with a wave of arrests of human rights activists, including lawyers, persecuted as traitors. A colleague from the Memorial, Mr Bakhrom Khamroyev, was imprisoned and prosecuted as “traitor” and that was a message to the Memorial members. In my particular case, the decision to flee was linked to the judicial process to shut down Memorial. Since 2019, there has been an attempt by the Russian authorities to close Memorial on the grounds of non-compliance with Foreign Agents Law.
Although Memorial paid fines of around 75,000 euros and submitted appeals, the organisation was finally closed down in April 2021 in a judicial process in which, despite the formal accusations, the prosecutor accused us of being traitors in the courtroom. At that time, I had to flee the country on my own. In fact, I waited for the whole judicial process to be over before I left, I wanted to fight to the end.
How is it to be a human rights lawyer in Russia after the war has started?
There is almost no possibility, especially if the human rights violations concern wrongdoings of law enforcement agents, or any sort of political activity by the regular citizens. Since Russia left the Council of Europe, which I consider to be the most effective mechanism, there are no international tribunals left which would issue binding judgments and the Russian courts are always on the side of the prosecution. The recommendations of various international mechanisms, such as UN Councils, Committees, Working Groups and Special Rapporteurs are viewed by Russian government as advisory, therefore, the Government and its courts see no need to comply with them.
Since the war began, do you still work with the Ukrainians lawyers and human rights activist? Do you plan on working on war crimes in Ukraine?
We still have a very good professional relationship with human rights defenders in Ukraine and there is almost no tension between Russian and Ukrainian lawyers. We worked together in some cases in Crimea. Concerning the current war, I think we have to let the priority to Ukrainians to work on it, and we are absolutely ready to support them.
Do you think that a revolution, or popular uprising, is possible in Russia?
Not anymore. In 2014, in Moscow, thousands of people protested against the annexation of Crimea. In 2019 and 2021, after the falsified elections and the arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, I myself participated in most of them. Hundreds of us were beaten, jailed or have been finned. The repression is even stronger now on protesters, with more police control, false accusations, and even the risk to lose your job. The government introduced a law saying that if you speak out against the war you will be 15 years in jail. No one believe in peaceful protests now because the risks are too high. What could change everything is to lose the war, and maybe more international support.
You said you won a case in front of the ECHR regarding domestic violence, what is the situation regarding that issue in Russia?
Before 2022, there were serious promises, drafting a law for protecting women against domestic violence. A great law was submitted by a coalition of NGO lawyers to discussion in 2019. Of course, there was a lot of propaganda and pressure against the law, spreading ideas such as “feminists are paid by the west”. After public discussion, a second draft was presented in which many crucial points of the first draft were missing and the government decided to drop the issue as neither side was satisfied. Since the war started this issue has been forgotten.
What is your current situation?
I have a humanitarian visa from Poland and continue to work online as a lawyer for Memorial, which is now based in different countries but is still working to protect Russian people, as well as the foreigners, from the Russian government’s repressive actions. I have had to adapt my work a bit, focusing on Russian law but more on the monitoring of human rights violations, the preparation of reports for international monitoring mechanisms and the public advocacy on international level.
How do you see your future? What are your hopes and goals?
I am still doing a lot of legal work with the UN mechanisms and also developing myself as an advocacy speaker. I’d love to be an attorney under Russian law, but for that the system and presidency have to change. So, my goal number one is to stop the war, and if there is a chance, change the Russian regime, overturn it to democracy. But it can’t happen if the war isn’t over.
 Memorial, one of the Russia’s oldest and most prominent human rights organisation, was a Nobel laureate in 2022.
 Cases related to human Rights violations in international conflicts such as Checheny and Georgian war, but also other cases such as tortures, forced disappearances, protection from domestic violence, restrictions to freedom of speech specially for anti-government statements, arrests for demonstrating, etc.
 The Russian foreign agent law requires anyone who receives “support” from outside Russia or is under “influence” from outside Russia to register and declare themselves as “foreign agents”. Memorial has been considered a foreign agent since 2014.