I have been receiving questions from several friends, colleagues, and a few reporters regarding the situation of Karinna Moskalenko. As many of you recall, Karinna discovered what looked like mercury pellets in her car on Sunday, Oct. 12. That week she and her children fell ill. Karinna was worried they may have been poisoned. She went to the French police and asked them to investigate. By Tuesday, Oct. 14, international media had picked up on the story following comments made by Karinna to Echo Moskvy regarding the likely mercury discovery. On Wednesday, Oct. 22, the French newspaper Le Figaro quoted unnamed police sources saying that the former owner of Karinna’s car had been found, and that he said the mercury may have come from a barometer he accidentally broke in the vehicle a few months ago. By Friday, Oct. 24, reports emerged stating that the French authorities believed the most likely scenario explaining the presence of the mercury was that of an accident. The investigation, however, has not yet concluded, no official announcements have been made, and neither Karinna nor her children have yet fully recovered from their exposure to the substance.
In some quarters there was a backlash against Karinna as well as against the media outlets that sensationalized the event. It was a mistake for any media outlet to assign blame preemptively for what appeared to be a poisoning attempt at the time.Its important that I make it clear that I am not an impartial observer of these events. As one of my most trusted colleagues and good friends, I hold enormous respect for the courage and bravery of Karinna Moskalenko, and personally support her in every way possible. I owe her an immeasurable debt for her brave intervention during my middle-of-the-night arrest and expulsion by Russia’s secret police during the Khodorkovsky trial.I have been in contact with her by phone every day since the discovery of the poison, and I fully grasp her legitimate concerns over security, which may appear to outsiders to verge on excess. Put into her shoes, however, most people would have feared the worst.For those of us working on politically sensitive cases, there is no such thing as excessive caution. Understand the environment we are working in. The former general counsel of Yukos, Vasily Alexanyan, has been jailed and held for years without being convicted of anything. The prosecutor has blackmailed him by withholding urgent medical care, trying to force him to produce false testimony against Khodorkovsky. Because medical care has been withheld, he has gone from being HIV positive to having full blown AIDS, lymphatic cancer and tuberculosis. Most agree that the treatment of Alexanyan, now terminally ill, will have essentially been murdered by the Russian prosecutor.We also have the case of Svetlana Bakhmina, another Yukos lawyer who for four years has been held in jail under baseless charges, despite being both pregnant and a mother of two. The recent rejection of her pardon request is a further demonstration of the state’s vindictive cruelty against lawyers involved in this case. One hopes that the public support of Mikhail Gorbachev will help to bring her fair treatment.At least seventeen lawyers involved in the Yukos case have been disbarred. Officials have routinely tried to destroy the professional future of anyone representing Khodorkovsky or Yukos. Moskalenko herself narrowly escaped disbarment proceedings thanks to both domestic and international outrage.One of Karinna’s other clients is the family of murdered journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Although I don’t often speak about it, and indeed prefer not to recall such difficult memories, there were many conversations that Anna and I shared regarding the personal safety aspect of her work. It is a great pity that we work in an environment where such a reactionary and cautious posture is not only credible and legitimate, but also necessary.The fact is that the people in charge in Russia have a direct reason to fear Moskalenko’s activities, as she shines a light on cases and actions which the power needs to have forgotten or hidden from view. Fearlessly and tirelessly, she does this daily.When Litvinenko was poisoned, I initially rose to the defense of Vladimir Putin, expecting that he would do the right thing and ensure full cooperation with an investigation. In the Moskalenko case, we are fortunate to be able to rely on the French police. Whatever they find, it is the environment in which Karinna operates that will remain toxic, and that gives cause for the greatest concern.If this incident, accidental or otherwise, helps the world to keep its eyes open to the dangers she and other Russian lawyers face, that would at least be one salutary result of this difficult situation.