I must confess that I feel entirely too close to Karinna Moskalenko personally and too involved professionally in the defense of our client, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to objectively comment on what appears to be a horrific mercury poisoning attempt in her car in Strasbourg, France. My subjective opinions on these events, colored as they may be by emotion, nevertheless lead me to believe that we are witnessing the latest chapter in a long established pattern of threats, harassment, intimidation, and now violence against lawyers in Russia. It is this pernicious pattern, and the institutionalized impunity that supports it, which must be unequivocally denounced, confronted, and challenged by every government, NGO, private sector company, and individual who still claims to uphold even the most minimal standard of ethics, morals and decency.
From the moment my friend Karinna arrived to the hospital, I was in frequent contact with her by phone. With the investigation ongoing, it would be improper for me to go into detail of the events, but good summaries can be found on the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Moscow Times. When I spoke with Karinna, she was not in mortal danger, but neither can I say that she was feeling even remotely well. But perhaps the most frightening aspect of this attempt was that it also indiscriminately targeted her daughter, who has fallen ill since the discovery of the poison.I need not describe to you what the physical effects are of extended exposure to mercury vapors, but let’s just say that in his book Elements of Murder: A History of Poison, John Emsley devotes significant study to attempted murders using mercury, as well as the other more familiar heavy metals.There’s no doubt that many are reminded of the murder by poisoning of the former spy turned whistle blower Alexander Litvinenko. Back then I published a piece on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free which I believe was one of the first calling for the presumption of innocence of Russia’s leadership before casting direct blame. I want to make it absolutely clear that in Karinna’s case I also believe that we can’t start pointing fingers, and that we need to proceed through the investigatory and law enforcement process before leaping to conclusions. It is a common and sober decency that was never afforded to us throughout the persecution of Khodorkovsky, and no one should be tempted to sink to the level of those prosecutors.But here is the rub as I see it: it really would make no logical sense whatsoever for either President Dmitry Medvedev nor Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to see another lawyer get attacked at this current juncture. In fact, one would assume that this is exactly the opposite kind of news they would want to see generate this month as they scurry to patch together their economy, cooperate like a model partner with the Sarkozy-orchestrated withdrawal plan from Georgia, and disaggregate Europe from the United States in the limited time they have left before the next U.S. president is sworn into office. That’s the message I take away from Medvedev’s now famous Evian speech – one part bluster and antagonism toward the United States, and two parts sweet talk to Europe. Russia knows what the EU wants to hear, and is good at rolling out these messages during times of need.It just wasn’t a good time for one of these poisoning fiascoes abroad.So perhaps what we are seeing here is a familiar exercise in Russia’s “authoritarianism without authority.” Although by all appearances, Putin and the siloviki like to look like they are in total control of the country, in fact, the opposite is true. From lowly bureaucrats to higher corruption entrepreneurs and state corporate raiders, there is a pervasive sense of impunity throughout this government, and a crippling lack of accountability that accounts for the core problem of “legal nihilism” as identified by the president. There’s little doubt that a wide range of government officials had become so used to Karinna Moskalenko as an acceptable target, especially after the highly public attempt to disbar her, that the reign of impunity for whatever action taken against her appeared to be complete.Back in the Soviet days, this was known as a practice of “piling on” whereby the government may not make any official state order to harass or intimidate an individual, it was understood through informal means who the targets were, and that nearly limitless resources could be dedicated toward sabotaging that individual’s life. Everyone’s mother, brother, sister, son, and lover would get in on the action with little fear of repercussions. This is the kind of process which made Stalin’s terror possible, and although I am certainly not comparing today’s Russia to the Soviet Union nor any current leader to Stalin, the impunity which makes a mercury poisoning possible is not something that we can simply overlook any longer.Furthermore, if we take the Litvinenko incident as an example, anyone caught up in an investigation can be sure to enjoy not only protection from the Kremlin, but also a lucrative career as a “national hero” in politics and business, as has been the case with Andrei Lugovoi. We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the “Lugovoi precedent” for all the eager young FSB agents looking to climb up the state corporate ladder.I am however happy to report that resolve remains strong. Karinna was one of the first people on the scene during my briefly dramatic midnight arrest by secret police in Moscow, and god only knows what might have happened to me without her dedicated help, the creative use of a cell phone camera, and the on-the-spot invention of a press conference. With the bravery that Karinna has shown not just in the Khodorkovsky case, but also in her defense of Anna Politkovskaya’s family, Garry Kasparov, and victims of the Chechen war, I can tell you that these crass attempts at intimidation won’t slow her down one bit. But we cannot allow this vacuum of accountability to persist any longer, and it would behoove us to consider asking the Russian government to make some official statements about their concern for the safety of both lawyers and journalists working in the country.