‘Nobody Is Untouchable’ Karinna Moskalenko is Russia’s most distinguished human-rights lawyer. Vladimir Putin wants her disbarred.
Ms. Moskalenko, 53, is the founder of the Moscow-based International Protection Center. For more than a decade, she has been arguing cases before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, to whose judgments Russia has been legally bound ever since it incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights in its 1993 Constitution. “We started with dozens of cases,” she says, recalling the IPC’s earliest days during the Yeltsin era. “We are now dealing with hundreds of cases.” Today, her clients include the imprisoned former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, chess champion and opposition leader Garry Kasparov and the family of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya. She also represents the victims of the 2002 “Nord-Ost” Moscow theater hostage crisis, and the relatives of Chechen civilians who have been tortured, murdered or disappeared in Russian “counterterrorism” operations. With its minuscule staff of eight lawyers and 20 trainees, the IPC receives roughly 12,000 requests for representation a year, though most lack adequate documentation to be brought to trial. Still, her current caseload in Strasbourg, totaling about 180, represents the lion’s share of the court’s docket, and she knows how to get results: Her victory in the 2002 Kalashnikov case — involving a man who had been held in pre-trial detention for five years in cramped and disease-ridden conditions — forced the Russian government to embark on its first serious attempt at modernizing its prison system. Such work has earned Ms. Moskalenko no shortage of formal tributes outside of Russia. In 2003 she was elected to the International Commission of Jurists; in 2006 she won the International Helsinki Federation’s Human Rights Recognition Award. Within Russia it’s a different story. Mr. Putin’s government assault on the IPC began by questioning the validity of its original registration. Next it proceeded to a tax audit — a favorite Putin tactic against financially strapped human-rights NGOs — on the theory that the IPC had used funds from the National Endowment for Democracy and the Ford and MacArthur Foundations for profit-taking. Though the government’s claims were easily disproven, it refuses formally to close the case. But for sheer chutzpah nothing approaches the government’s attempts to disbar Ms. Moskalenko on the grounds that she has incompetently represented Mr. Khodorkovsky — a remarkable bit of solicitude for a man whose sentence to a Siberian prison camp has just been extended. According to a motion filed April 18 by the prosecutor general’s office with the Russian registration service, Ms. Moskalenko failed her client in February when she was forced to leave a lawyers’ conference with Mr. Khodorkovsky a day early to attend to her sick 14-year-old son. “This [motion] has been decided at a high level, though we don’t know who exactly ordered it,” says Ms. Moskalenko. Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika was until last year Mr. Putin’s minister of justice. The story of what happened to Ms. Moskalenko on that visit to Siberia is worth telling, if only for the light it sheds on the government’s efforts — by turns petty and sinister — to harass her and her team. On Feb. 4, she arrived at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport to discover that the rest of her legal team had been “detained” by police and Interior Ministry officials who seized their passports, ransacked their luggage and inspected confidential documents related to cases before the Strasbourg court, including Mr. Khodorkovsky’s, before allowing them to board the plane. On her return, Ms. Moskalenko was again detained by officials who forced her to sign papers forbidding her from disclosing the details of the government’s new case against Mr. Khodorkovsky. On account of her son — whose ill health the authorities were aware of — she signed. Ms. Moskalenko speculates that the current disbarment action stems from the legal fuss she raised about the incidents at the airport. “After I complained to the prosecutor general they reconsidered what to do about me. They stopped abusing me at the airports. Instead, they decided to finish my career.” The motion will first have to wind its way through a special committee of the Moscow bar, but failing that the government can file for her disbarment in court. “There’s no precedent that I know of for this,” she says. “They will make an experiment of me.” Disbarment would effectively put an end to Ms. Moskalenko’s career in Russia, including her efforts (the latest as recently as yesterday) to defend Mr. Kasparov’s political activities in court. It would also require her to seek approval from the presidency of the Strasbourg court every time she sought to bring a case to trial, just the sort of humiliation in which Mr. Putin’s government delights. Yet it’s the broader ramifications of the government’s actions that most concern Ms. Moskalenko. While she scrupulously avoids mentioning Mr. Putin by name — “I am strictly not a politician,” she says more than once — she is under no illusions about his methods. In today’s Russia, “it isn’t necessary to put all the businessmen in jail. It is necessary to jail the richest, the most independent, the most well-connected. It isn’t necessary to kill all the journalists. Just kill the most outstanding, the bravest, and the others will get the message. Nobody is untouchable. I tell Kasparov: ‘Look, you are not untouchable.'” For now, however, it is Ms. Moskalenko herself who is in Mr. Putin’s sights — a dangerous place to be, given the experience of so many of her clients. Characteristically, she isn’t budging. Robert Amsterdam, a Canadian lawyer on Mr. Khodorkovsky’s defense team, recalls that when he was arrested in September 2005 by Russian security services, she was the first person he called. “These thugs from the secret police wouldn’t give us their IDs,” he says. “So Karinna takes her cell phone and clicks their pictures. The woman is completely fearless. And there’s nothing that scares these people more than someone who is fearless, someone who puts principle above safety or social standing.” Mr. Amsterdam’s story is a testament to the courage and tenacity of a woman in the face of a regime whose threats must never be taken lightly. One wonders whether Condoleezza Rice, now in Moscow to meet with Mr. Putin, can show if she’s made of the same stuff. Raising Ms. Moskalenko’s case would be a start.