Andrey Rylkov Foundation
for Health and Social Justice

Public defense. Lena’s story – a success story


Елена Яковлева с детьми после освобождения

The Andrey Rylkov Foundation supports people who use drugs and people living with HIV in protecting their rights and dignity. And we are more and more convinced that in order for us to protect our own rights, we do not always need expensive lawyers or large human rights grants.

 Sometimes commitment, perseverance, faith in justice and the help of friends is enough. This story is told by Natalya Vershinina of Togliatti on how she managed to secure the release of an unjustly convicted drug user, a woman from Togliatti—a success story, and a joyous confirmation that with strong will and some remote technical legal support (from the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network’s  Mikhail Golichenko), you can succeed even in Russia’s repressive “justice” system.


Lena Yakovleva is 30 years old and the mother of two children—Angelina, 9, and Jura, 4 and a half. She is a widow.

Lena is addicted to drugs. In 2011 she was convicted to 1.5 years imprisonment for the possession of drugs for personal use, but the sentence was postponed until the children reach the age of 14.

Access to drug rehabilitation is extremely limited in Russia. There is no rehabilitation for patients with young children. As part of her sentence Lena was required to undergo general drug rehabilitation outside Togliatti. The local detachment of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service was to supervise Lena’s behavior under the sentence. When the young woman asked for the leave to undergo rehabilitation outside of Tolgiatti, the penitentiary officer told her that she needed to stay home to look after her children, and not go for rehabilitation. Without high-quality drug treatment, Lena could not quit drugs. As a result, she used desomorphine and was arrested for drug possession for personal use.

Public defense denied

At the time of her arrest, Lena was receiving support from the organization Project April, where workers helped Lena at their best to solve social, medical and other types of problems that had arisen in connection with her health condition. After being detained, Lena was appointed a free lawyer. However Lena felt that the appointed counsel was there merely to fulfill its formal function and may not be effective.

Lenahad no money for a paid lawyer, but she learned that in addition to the appointed counsel in a criminal case, a defendant may also be allowed a public defender—a lay person willing to provide the defense.Lenamade a written request to appoint Natalya Vershinina from the Project April as her defender.Lenaknew Natalya as a case manager and trusted her not only as a person, but as an expert on issues related to drug dependence.

However, the court did not formally recognize Natalya as a public defender. Ultimately, the hearing was held without Natalya. Lenawas brought to court from her drug treatment clinic (in which she was enrolled after being released on bail) in a t-shirt and slippers —leaving the rest of her belongings behind—on December 27, 2012. The police officer who picked her up from the clinic did not allow Lenato take her things, telling her that she would be given a conditional sentence and could return. Lenawas sentenced to 3.5 years in prison and taken to the detention center empty-handed; hungry; and suffering from drug withdrawal syndrome.

Natalya did not quit on Lena and filed an appeal with the Samara Regional Court, believing that the sentence should be quashed as illegal on appeal due to the violation of the accused’s right to a lawyer. On March 26, 2013 the judgment was reversed by the Judicial Chamber for Criminal Cases of the Samara Regional Court. The case was sent for the review to the district court. At retrial, the district court allowed Natalya to fully participate as a public defender. The last court hearing was scheduled for April 5, 2013.

Before the trial, Lena’s cellmates swore that if Lena were to be released, they would believe in miracles. On April 5, 2013, the case was dismissed. Lena was released from custody in the courtroom.

Natalya Vershinina

In my work, people often wonder: why she/he did not quit drugs? No one knows the exact answer to this question. But perhaps family problems contributed to the dependence. Lena’s dad hung himself. And her mother could not stand the grief, could not handle the responsibility for three children and started to drink. She beat Lena. And this situation is common for people we work with in Project April. In fact, the question “why did not quit?” is rather awkward. What is there to understand? A person needs help; she could not stop. Upon her release, Lena did not go and use drugs. She went for a walk with the children. Her daughter occasionally hugged her mom and whispered things into her ear. Powerlessness: that what breaks people and leads to horrible consequences.

Mikhail Golichenko, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

Public defenders may provide real assistance in criminal cases involving drugs. Very often people who are prosecuted for drugs are not able to afford quality legal assistance. An attorney assigned by the state would not work on the case with as much dedication as they would if they had a personal investment in it. Representatives from the civil society organizations that provide social support to drug users are no worse and sometimes even better than appointed lawyers because they are familiar with the intricacies of drug use and the most frequent human rights violations that occur in that area of the criminal law. In addition they tend to have the opportunity to consult with other human rights activists online. But most importantly, they help with all their heart and are ready to take on the case until the end. Natalya had precisely this attitude with regard to Lena. It was her determination that made the criminal justice system work in this case, which deservedly led Lena to freedom and returned a mother to her children.

Category Categories: Drug policy in Russia, Voices from Russia | Tag Tags: , , , , | Comments 1 comment »


One comment to “Public defense. Lena’s story – a success story”

  1. Maureen Elwood says:

    What a wonderful outcome! Thanks for the hard work.

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