Yuri Schmidt Interview in El Pais

Yuri Schmidt, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s lead lawyer in Russia, was featured in an extensive profile interview in Spain’s largest circulation newspaper, El Pais, on August 13, 2007. Below is an exclusive English translation of the interview – the original PDF of the article can be downloaded here. El_Pais_logo0925.png


“Khodorkovsky has not lost his spirit or resistance” Yuri Schmidt, lawyer for the magnate, says that the last remains of an independent judicial system in Russia have disappeared. By Pilar Bonet, Moscow The budding of an independent judicial system that emerged during the Boris Yeltsin era has disappeared during the Vladimir Putin era. The case of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is serving a sentence of eight years for his political challenge to the Kremlin, “separates one Russia from the other,” argues Yuri Schmidt, the principal lawyer for the fallen multi-millionaire, who first became famous for his defense of Navy captain and environmentalist Alexandr Nikitin – the only scientist accused of espionage able to obtain an acquittal. In October Khodorkovsky will have completed four years of imprisonment and “he hasn’t lost his spirit or resistance,” Schmidt indicated in an interview. The magnate “understands very well that it is still too early to hope to be reinstated. He is a strong person, and if he had been weak or cowardly, he would not have entered into conflict with the Kremlin nor would he have financed the opposition, and he would be living in freedom. We are dealing with a great man, practically brilliant,” he affirms. The lawyers for Khodorkovsky have challenged all the attempts by the prison Administrators to incriminate him on disciplinary penalties. They were hoping that Khodorkovsky would be able to obtain his liberty by fulfilling half of his sentence and were also looking forward to the presentation of the case before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. His anticipated release is problematic, because the Russian prosecutors have prepared new charges against Khodorkovsky, this time for tax evasion. Meanwhile the run-up toward the European Court is slow. In Strasbourg, there is no claim for monetary compensation, “but rather the right to a fair trial,” which would mean that “the prison sentence should be revised” if the judges decide in the oligarch’s favor. At the moment Khodorkovsky “wants the Russian courts to do justice.” Schmidt is more skeptical: “They have gone too far and it would be very complicated to return the confiscated property.” Schmidt declares that Khodorkovsky didn’t want Russia to be excluded from the G8 because of his cause, but “his fear was unfounded, because the world just doesn’t care.” “I can’t forgive President [George] Bush for going fishing with and hugging Putin,” he points out. The prison conditions for Khodorkovsky as “passable.” “The prison authorities try to observe the minimum international norms; there is not overcrowding in the cells, the latrines are separated by partitions, and furthermore there is a refrigerator and television.” Does Schmidt fear for the future of the defendant? Yes, he admits. “In the beginning, I thought that the authorities weren’t going to allow anyone to touch a hair on his head, but when they attacked him with a knife, I thought that it was a test to see what the international reaction would be.” In his opinion, “only now is Europe catching on to the idea that there is a monster growing here, a rich country that is rearming and although less dangerous than the USSR and won’t wage global war, will indeed create tensions and big problems for the West.” Two courts have rejected appeals against the prosecutors’ attempt to try Khodorkovsky in Chita, Siberia, more than 6,000 kilometers from Moscow, far from the international press. According to Russian law, hearings must be held where the crimes were committed. The case of Khodorkovsky appears to be held up, perhaps for the imminence of parliamentary elections in December and the presidential elections in March. Schmidt embraces the hope that “the Khodorkovsky card is played out among the distinct groups around Putin in their struggle for power.” Surrounding the leader are “enemies of Khodorkovsky, such as Igor Sechin, the engine of the persecution against the tycoon” and other high civil servants that are more neutral. “I hope that the fight that is currently going on behind the scenes breaks through the surface and that they argue in public.” Schmidt, who is 70 years old, has a long career of service for human rights. When the captain Nikitin was acquitted in 1999, “the security organs tried to put pressure on the judges, but they fought back against these pressures.” Afterward, other scientists accused of espionage were condemned to prison sentences. The “halt and backtracking” began in 2002 and involved “a regression across all fields.” “Freedom of press and relatively free elections are over, and they attack civil society. When they attack the basic civil liberties of protesting and meeting, you cannot have hope in an independent judicial power, because this can’t exist in a vacuum,” Schmidt declares. “Like the communist system of the USSR, the Russiajn political system uses justice as an instrument. The judges can freely decide if the case doesn’t affect high political interests or doesn’t involve corruption. But the cases that affect the regional and federal authorities are not left to chance.” Institutions theoretically independent like the judicial authorities and the prosecutor general have a practice of verbal orders, which are transmitted from the presidential administration. In the Soviet era, to be expelled from the judiciary or the procuracy was a tragedy, because “the market for legal services was very reduced.” Now, to resist the pressures, judges and prosecutors need a certain amount of courage and determination, but much less than in Soviet times. In some proceeding, it will on record that they aren’t to be trusted, which can be used in any moment against them. The judge that pardoned Mikitin resisted the enormous pressure from the security services, and sacrificed his chances to advance his career. Ever since Putin took power, many of the good laws that were passed in the 1990s were altered with small amendments which reduced the level of defense for citizens and allowed a greater level of arbitrariness for the authorities. The category of “state secret, for example, is regularly used in an arbitrary manner by prosecutors to avoid publicity and monopolize information.” In the Soviet era the procuracy was a “monster with multiple functions”, which opened proceedings, began investigations or transferred them to other authorities, such as the Ministry of the Interior or the KGB, and supervised. The procuracy could also protest any judicial decision. It was an overly powerful organization that inhibited the democratization of the judicial process. Now, a new law that will go into effect in September deprives the procuracy of its investigative functions, although, according to Schmidt, the measure does not reflect a democratic reform, but rather a dispute among Putin’s inner circle over spheres of influence. Also the role of defense lawyers is under focus, according to a legislative proposal that would allow the Ministry of Justice to get rid of inconvenient lawyers, declares Schmidt. For the moment, whenever the authorities try to sideline one of his client’s attorneys, the final word goes to the Bar Association, which has been crucial to maintain the positions for Khodorkovsky’s defense team.