Andrew Osborn

 

 

Chief Russia Correspondent

 

Deputy Bureau Chief Russia/CIS

 

Reuters

 

 

Russia's Rule of Lawlessness --- Muckraking Attorney Is Murdered Despite Reform Pledge

The Wall Street Journal, 21st March 2009 11:29

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW -- Just minutes before his murder, Stanislav Markelov was at his most defiant. Protesting the release of a war criminal he had helped convict, he declared: "The person who decided to free him . . . should be held criminally responsible."

As one of Russia's top human-rights lawyers -- a rare and endangered species -- Mr. Markelov had many enemies, from politicians to Nazi sympathizers. In January, someone took revenge. Mr. Markelov was walking along a busy Moscow sidewalk after his speech when a man shot him twice in the head. As the snow turned blood red, the gunman slipped away.

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.

This past week, in a bizarre twist, Andrei Lugovoi, the U.K.'s top suspect in the infamous 2006 poisoning of a Kremlin critic in a London sushi restaurant, said he will probably run for mayor of Sochi, the Russian ski resort hosting the 2014 winter Olympics. In Britain, he is a wanted man; the Kremlin says extradition would be unconstitutional.

The widow of Mr. Lugovoi's alleged victim says his mayoral aspirations make a mockery of justice. Mr. Lugovoi has repeatedly said he is innocent.

The arc of Mr. Markelov's career reflects Russia's years-long struggle to become a place where its citizens can rely upon courts that can't be bribed or bullied. Mr. Markelov was one of a tiny community of lawyers willing to take on politically sensitive cases despite growing official pressure.

Mr. Markelov worked out of a tiny office with faded yellow walls and a view out the window of a concrete wall. His clients included torture victims, families trying to prosecute people who murdered their relatives, former Chechen rebel fighters, and activists against fascism.

Unlike most of his legal colleagues, who confined their battles to the courtroom, Mr. Markelov sometimes let his emotions guide his actions. He regularly attended protest rallies and spoke at demonstrations.

He also used unorthodox legal maneuvers to get results. His January speech, delivered on the day he was killed, fell into that category. Mr. Markelov was fighting parole for a Russian colonel whom he had helped to jail for killing a Chechen girl -- even though he had no legal basis to fight it.

In fiercely condemning the colonel's parole, "I told him he'd crossed a line," said Lev Ponomaryov, a longtime human-rights activist.

The colonel, Yuri Budanov, couldn't be reached for comment. He has told local media Mr. Markelov's murder was "a tragedy" that he had nothing to do with.

Mr. Markelov, who was 34 years old when he died, came of age as the Soviet Union crumbled. He was 17 in 1991, the year the USSR collapsed. Two years later, when Communists tried to take over the main national television studio near his home, he dodged bullets to rescue the wounded.

In the mid-1990s, Mr. Markelov went to law school in Moscow. While many classmates set their sights on the lucrative field of corporate law, he wanted to defend people persecuted by the state.

"He considered that people who fought against the government, or who found themselves in opposition, would need legal help," says friend Vlad Tupikin.

Before his lawyer days, Mr. Markelov was something of a hippie. He wore his hair in a pony tail, tied colorful ribbons around his wrist, and sported the same pair of jeans and gray sweater for weeks on end. On one occasion, he swam the Moscow river to try to impress a girl, his friends recall.

He also had a serious side. He traveled to the volatile North Caucasus region to investigate conditions for refugees. He joined environmental protesters trying to stop the opening of nuclear power stations around the country.

When he qualified as a lawyer in 1997, he cut his hair, swapped his jeans for a suit, and started carrying a briefcase. His first client was a left-wing radical accused of terrorism by the FSB security service -- the former KGB.

His client had blown up a memorial plaque to the Romanov dynasty, Russia's pre-revolutionary royal family. The stunt was ostensibly to protest a possible return of the monarchy.

Nobody was hurt -- the blast took place in a cemetery -- but prosecutors charged him with terrorism. Mr. Markelov eventually got the charge reduced to vandalism. It was a rare victory against the FSB, and an auspicious start for a budding rights lawyer.

Mr. Markelov made his name with cases against Russian forces fighting the Kremlin's war in Chechnya, a conflict that dominated the first presidential term of Mr. Putin, from 2000 to 2004.

The most prominent case was that of Col. Budanov, who had been accused of murdering Elza Kungaeva, an 18-year-old Chechen girl, in 2000. The evidence against Col. Budanov was strong. He admitted he had killed her, calling it a moment of temporary insanity. He also alleged that the girl had been a rebel sniper.

Many Russians viewed Col. Budanov as a hero, fighting a just war against Chechen terrorists who threatened the very fabric of Russian society.

Mr. Markelov helped represent the dead girl's family. Col. Budanov was convicted and given a 10-year jail sentence, making him the highest-ranking officer convicted of war crimes in the Chechen wars.

After a time, rights lawyers say, they started to face serious intimidation. Though they don't accuse Mr. Putin of being directly responsible, they say the intimidation started during his second term in the Kremlin as his grip on power was tightening.

One lawyer who specialized in helping Russians take their cases to the European Court of Human Rights, Karina Moskalenko, says state prosecutors tried and failed to have her disbarred, twice. Last year she became sick after finding traces of mercury in a car she uses in France.

French police suggested the mercury might be from a broken thermometer belonging to the car's previous owner. "I'm skeptical," Ms. Moskalenko says, noting that the car had been thoroughly cleaned. "It's possible that someone wanted to poison me."

Another prominent lawyer, Boris Kuznetsov, fled Russia after prosecutors accused him of divulging state secrets.

One evening in 2004, it was Mr. Markelov's turn. Five young men beat him unconscious as he rode the subway. "You asked for this," one of the men said, Mr. Markelov told an American journalist afterward. The attackers ignored about 1,500 rubles (about $50) in cash he was carrying, but made off with documents related to a case he was working on.

No one was arrested for the attack.

In 2006, as his ambitions grew, Mr. Markelov set up his own legal foundation. It was little more than a loose network of lawyers around the country willing to take on human-rights cases. But by organizing nationally, Mr. Markelov was drawing more unwanted attention to himself.

The Kremlin increasingly viewed "nongovernmental" organizations like these as de facto spy rings. Mr. Putin and his intelligence chiefs said foreign governments were using them to destabilize Russia.

Many nongovernmental organizations closed. But Mr. Markelov expanded.

He took on clients who were controversial even within the human-rights community. For instance, he represented "anti-fascists" -- vigilante gangs who fight street battles against rival gangs of Nazi sympathizers. (In Russia, these Nazi sympathizers assault and sometimes kill immigrants as part of their campaign for Russian ethnic purity.) Other lawyers shy away from defending the anti-fascists due to their sometimes-violent tactics.

In 2007, Mr. Markelov was hired by the mother of a murdered anti-fascist. He helped convict three Nazi sympathizers in the murder, winning unusually tough six-year jail sentences for the killers, when suspended sentences would be more the norm.

Before he died, Mr. Markelov told friends he was featured in a computer game on a skinhead Web site. In the game, called "Kill a Tajik" (a reference to immigrants from Tajikistan, a regular target of violence) gamers needed to kill a computer-generated Mr. Markelov in order to "win," according to Mr. Markelov's description.

This past January, when Col. Budanov, the convicted killer of the Chechen girl, received parole, Mr. Markelov was outraged, and he said so publicly. "This is simply an illegitimate release," Mr. Markelov told a Moscow radio station.

He filed a formal appeal on behalf of the dead girl's family, even though Russian law gives the family no say in parole.

Friends advised him against it. By filing a case he knew had no chance of winning, Mr. Markelov could be seen as making the fight personal, says Mr. Ponomaryov, the longtime human-rights lawyer. "He personally opposed Budanov's early release."

Around this time, Mr. Markelov received a death threat on his cell phone, according to Amnesty International researcher Friederike Behr, to whom Mr. Markelov emailed the threat. The message read: "Idiot, couldn't you find a more peaceful way of killing yourself?"

Mr. Markelov escalated his fight. At his news conference on the day he was murdered, he said he would press for an additional investigation into crimes allegedly committed by Col. Budanov. He spoke of taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights, a court based in France that has become a last resort for many Russians who feel they can't get justice at home.

No suspects have been named in Mr. Markelov's killing.

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

In that meeting, President Medvedev said it was awful that a brilliant young man had been killed, according to Dmitry Muratov, the newspaper editor present.

Mr. Gorbachev criticized Mr. Medvedev during the closed-door session, saying that "These and other sincere words could have been heard sooner," according to Mr. Muratov.

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

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

Mr. Markelov was buried in a snow-covered cemetery, in the shadow of the TV tower where he helped rescue gunshot victims in the 1990s. Since then, hundreds of people have rallied to protest his death in Moscow, and thousands in Grozny, the Chechen capital.

At two rallies in Moscow, a recording of one of his last speeches was played. "I am sick of meeting my acquaintances in crime reports," Mr. Markelov's voice intones, in a recording made two months before he became listed in a crime report himself.