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Rule of Lawlessness

A great story on one of Russia’s greatest lawyers, Stanislav Markelov, on the front page of the Wall Street Journal today.

In Russia, lawyers who defend the weak can find themselves on the firing line. Mr. Markelov’s murder contrasts starkly with a simple promise Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is making. Last weekend, the president delivered a national address renewing his pledge to restore the rule of law and end Russia’s culture of “legal nihilism.”

Russia’s rule-of-law crisis takes many forms. A few days from now, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky — as recently as 2004, Russia’s richest man — goes on trial for fraud in what his supporters claim is political persecution. His real offense, they say, was to oppose former President Vladimir Putin. (…)

Unlike most of his legal colleagues, who confined their battles tothe courtroom, Mr. Markelov sometimes let his emotions guide hisactions. He regularly attended protest rallies and spoke atdemonstrations.

He also used unorthodox legal maneuvers to get results. His Januaryspeech, delivered on the day he was killed, fell into that category.Mr. Markelov was fighting parole for a Russian colonel whom he hadhelped to jail for killing a Chechen girl — even though he had nolegal basis to fight it.

In fiercely condemning the colonel’s parole, “I told him he’dcrossed a line,” said Lev Ponomaryov, a longtime human-rights activist.

The colonel, Yuri Budanov, couldn’t be reached for comment. He hastold local media Mr. Markelov’s murder was “a tragedy” that he hadnothing to do with. (…)

Kremlin reaction to the death was muted. Ten days after the killing,President Medvedev called a closed-door meeting with former SovietPresident Mikhail Gorbachev, who now runs a public-policy think tank,and the editor of Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper that has been highlycritical of the government, to discuss the matter privately.

In that meeting, President Medvedev said it was awful that abrilliant young man had been killed, according to Dmitry Muratov, thenewspaper editor present.

Mr. Gorbachev criticized Mr. Medvedev during the closed-doorsession, saying that “These and other sincere words could have beenheard sooner,” according to Mr. Muratov.

Afterward, the Kremlin posted only a one-sentence summary on itswebsite saying the meeting had taken place and who was present. Aspokesman for President Medvedev declined to comment on the killing,saying, “We consider that any comments given could be misinterpretedand interfere with the investigation into this terrible crime.”

Mr. Putin, who is now Russia’s Prime Minister, hasn’t spoken publicly on the matter.