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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Holding Police to the Limits of Law

Having spent time in 7 prisons and 34 militia stations around town, Ruben Mangue is no stranger to the Moscow police.

In fact, the international human rights lawyer from Equitorial Guinea so frequently has run-ins with the police that he keeps a little blue notebook filled with names, phone numbers, and snippets of dialogue with police chiefs.

Take the entry on April 9, for example, when Mangue himself was arrested along with two refugees from Somalia he was trying to protect. Or the time he intervened to prevent the police from illegally deporting an asylum seeker from Afghanistan.

"They have no right to do that," says Mangue, adding that Russian law requires the police to consult the federal migration service before they can deport anyone.

When the police decide to take the law into their own hands, Mangue steps in, waving documents that protect the rights of his clients. He is often the only shield between the refugees he defends and a one-way ticket back to persecution.

A lawyer with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Mangue never goes anywhere without three key documents: the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees, ratified by the Russian Federation in 1993; Russia's own 1993 law on refugees, outlining the legal and social assistance granted them; and Article 63 of the new Russian Constitution, which states that people facing persecution in their home countries have the right to seek asylum in Russia.

"It's easy to work with these tools," says Mangue. "They're not just international documents, but they have been ratified by the state. They are the law of the land."

Maybe so, but Mangue still comes up against police who are aggressive, threatening, and unwilling to listen to a human rights lawyer with a briefcase full of paper. Some still refer to antiquated Soviet laws that are no longer valid, and ask Mangue why he is defending the very people they are trying so hard to kick out.

Their rights may exist on paper -- but it is Mangue's job to try to put them into practice.

"I try to be calm and explain the situation," says Mangue, whose soothing manner and singsong voice are invaluable assets in a job that would provoke even the coolest of characters. But Mangue knows better than to get angry. "I know how to deal with these people and make them understand there are certain laws."

Maybe it is his disarming smile or his unfailing calm, but Mangue usually gets the police to listen. In fact, he finds that his main obstacle with the authorities is not arrogance, but ignorance. Often by the time he is finished sifting through his papers Mangue finds that the police themselves are unaware of the existing laws. Once they understand him they are often willing to cooperate.

Not only are the police surprised that these laws exist, but the lawyers who are supposed to defend harassed asylum seekers are also in the dark. Throughout his travels in the former Soviet Union, Mangue has found that most lawyers do not have access to the information they need to defend their clients.

Mangue frequently tries to help both refugees as well as the lawyers who try to defend them, but as a UN representative, his responsibilities can only go so far.

To be involved in cases dealing with refugees from the CIS, or foreign asylum seekers who have been charged with a crime, he must abandon his UN status and wear another hat.

But now he has a new hat to wear, as executive president of the International Alliance, a new organization Mangue recently founded with lawyers and other professional from 27 different countries.

Currently based in Moscow, the alliance aims to reinforce UN ideals, aid refugees and the lawyers who defend them, and serve as a global watchdog organization. While the organization is currently based in Moscow, where all the founding members are located, Mangue envisages its headquarters will eventually move to Switzerland.

As the executive president of the alliance, Mangue will have broader powers to protect refugees from overly aggressive police.

But the threats, Mangue says, do not always come from the authorities. Sometimes they come from the very community he is trying to defend. "They think we can do everything," says Mangue.

Not long ago 100 homeless Iraqi Kurds descended upon his office, informing him they would move right in if he did not find them housing. "You're here to work for us," one irate Kurd told Mangue. "If you don't help us we can kill you."