Not even three months have passed since the assassination of one of Russia’s greatest human rights lawyers, Stanislav Markelov, that once again we have blood on the Moscow snow. Once again, the victim is another illustrious human rights leader, once again we can expect the state to say (and do) nothing, and once again, the international community will likely be timid if not silent. No one will even pretend as though an investigation will be conducted.
The selection of such a target at such a time is significant. I would describe Lev Ponomarev as more than a friend and respected colleague, but rather as one of the true fighters for human rights in Russia – a man of influence and tireless passion. We have published significant amounts of his research on this blog, he supplied us with the covertly recorded video of torture and prison abuse (which has been viewed by hundreds of thousands on YouTube), and his ongoing criticism of the human rights abuses occurring in the persecution of Mikhail Khodorkovsky caused great irritation in the Kremlin.
Unfortunately, there are several reasons to believe that his advocacy activities related to this case, as much as the other work of his NGO, may have prompted this attack.
On Friday, Lev Ponomarev hosted a large gathering of the top human rights activisits of Russia to denounce the case. On Tuesday, the first day of the second trial of Khodorkovsky began in Moscow, with the defendant calling upon Vladimir Putin and Igor Sechin to take the stand. Then, on Wednesday night, Ponomarev met with the Euro Diplomat Sabine Leutheusser Schnarrenberger, who is well known for her scathing report as the EU’s independent rappoteur to the first trial – a document which proved that Mikhail Khodorkovsky was being politically persecuted and denied his basic human rights in court. Ponomarev, whose daughter is coincidentally one of the lawyers on the defense team of Platon Lebedev, was directly recognized in a statement today by Khodorkovsky himself, who said: “I am deeply sorry to acknowledge that the beating of a 67 yearold human rights activist could be connected with his statementsconcerning my own defence and I wish hIm a speedy recovery.“
In fact, there are some who are speculating that Ponomarev’s meeting with Leutheusser Schnarrenberger might have been the only detail separating his fate from that of the slain lawyer Markelov, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. I have been getting some text messages directly from Lev’s bedside, and the injuries appear to be very severe. Doctors have told him not to move his head for fear of massive concussion, but he is not listening – hungry as always for more information about what can be done. I am told that in particular he is suffering very bad injuries around the ribcage area, and internal pains possibly involving the heart – which Karinna Moskalenko tells me is the most troubling injury.
As I am writing these words, Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev are shaking hands and enjoying their first conversation in London – a fact that was not lost upon Lev’s “mysterious” attackers. On the one hand, attacking a human rights leader and beating him to within an inch of his life right before the G20 summit, the thugs understood that the news would be buried under an avalanche of other reports about nuclear agreements and weapons treaties (this has long been a regular modus operandi in our experience – the worst news on the case would always come on a Friday before a holiday weekend, or anytime to best manage the news cycle). On the other hand, the timing of the attack also seeks to send a clear message, not only to Khodorkovsky’s remaining supporters, but also to anyone who might have misunderstood Russia’s intentions to integrate with any level of international norms as a result of this meeting.
My prediction is that the state will blame this attack on hooliganism, once again benefitting from the random, out-of-control street violence and hate crimes that plague the city of Moscow, and serve as a cover for what the rest of us understand is an elaborate repressive instrument. Such was the argument I made earlier this year in my article “Partners in Crime” in the Washington Post. The attack on Ponomarev, no matter whose fists did the damage, is the latest example of this deeply disturbing trend – one that cannot afford to be ignored.