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'We Discovered Mercury In Our Car'

Karina Moskalenko
Karina Moskalenko
When the lawyer Dmitry Medvedev replaced the KGB agent Vladimir Putin as president of Russia in May, some dared hope a new day was dawning for the rule of law in Russia. Observers noted that Medvedev's base of support -- such as it was -- was anchored among lawyers, especially the Association of Lawyers of Russia -- whose oversight board was chaired by Medvedev.

But the experience of renowned Russian defense lawyer Karina Moskalenko seems to fit into a terrifying old pattern rather than pointing to a bright new future. Moskalenko -- who represents slain Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, was a member of the defense team of imprisoned former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and represents hundreds of Russians in cases pending before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg -- discovered toxic mercury pellets in her car in Strasbourg earlier this month.

The incident, which is being investigated by French police, prevented Moskalenko from attending a pretrial hearing in the Politkovskaya slaying in Moscow.

"One day -- I remember it was a Sunday -- we discovered mercury in our car," Moskalenko told RFE/RL's Russian Service in an interview on October 22. "It seemed to us that the shining was clearly characteristic of mercury; that was our impression. We thought it was very dangerous and the substance had to be examined. Our impression was that it was mercury."

Moskalenko and her children have sought medical help for severe nausea and headaches.

Moskalenko has been careful not to point any fingers in the case. She told RFE/RL: "I sent all the information to the court [in Russia]. I did not claim that anyone had done it deliberately."

For Moskalenko personally, the mercury incident seems to fit into an old pattern of intimidation in response to her human rights activities. In May 2007, the International Helsinki Foundation urged Moscow to stop harassing Moskalenko, and particularly to stop efforts to have her disbarred and to end ungrounded tax-evasion probes of her NGO, the International Protection Center.

The effort to disbar Moskalenko was a particularly juicy example of the "legal nihilism" that Medvedev claims to be so exercised about. In a move "The Wall Street Journal" characterized as "sheer chutzpah," Kremlin lackeys tried to argue that she had incompetently defended Khodorkovsky in the trumped-up and politically motivated cases brought against him. See the "Journal" article for a lot more detail in the matter, detail that would be funny if it weren't so deadly serious.

Moskalenko would hardly be the first person who has crossed the Kremlin to fall victim to a suspicious poisoning incident.

Yury Shchekochikhin, an investigative journalist and State Duma deputy who was pushing for a parliamentary investigation into a series of suspicious apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities in 1999, died of an apparent poisoning in July 2003. No death certificate was issued, no autopsy was performed despite the horrific circumstances of his death.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's face was badly disfigured from dioxin poisoning in September 2004 during a bitter election campaign against the Kremlin-backed rival Viktor Yanukovych. Yushchenko has undergone 24 operations as part of his recovery and has charged that Russia is hampering the investigation into the crime.

In September 2004, just over two years before she was killed by an assassin in Moscow, Polikovskaya herself fell ill in an apparent poisoning attempt after drinking tea on a flight to Beslan to cover the hostage crisis in that city for "Novaya gazeta." She charged that Russian security forces were behind the incident.

And most famously, former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko died in London in November 2006 after being poisoned with radioactive polonium. British intelligence sources have said they believe there was Russia "state involvement" in the case.

None of these cases has been solved. The police in Strasbourg have their work cut out for them.

-- Brian Whitmore and Robert Coalson

About This Blog

Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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