/ 22 October 2008

Russian lawyer at centre of poisoning inquiry

Russia’s leading human rights lawyer is at the centre of an investigation by French police after claiming she had been poisoned by a suspicious substance found hidden in her car.

Detectives in the town of Strasbourg were examining whether Karinna Moskalenko — the country’s most prominent defender of Kremlin opponents — had been deliberately poisoned.

Moskalenko said on Monday her husband discovered ”large” quantities of a mercury-like substance hidden under her car seat. Moskalenko had been due on Wednesday to attend the Moscow trial of three men accused of involvement in the murder of the crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

Politkovskaya, a fierce critic of Vladimir Putin, was shot dead two years ago outside her Moscow flat. Two Chechen brothers, Dzhanrail and Ibragim Makhmudov, have been charged with carrying out surveillance on Politkovskaya. A former police officer, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, is accused of giving them technical help.

But the trial was overshadowed by Moskalenko’s non-appearance. A champion of victims of torture in Chechnya, she represents many of Putin’s most high-profile enemies. These include Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oligarch Putin jailed in 2003, and the opposition leader and former chess champion Garry Kasparov.

Moskalenko said her husband, a chemist, stumbled across the deadly substance while cleaning the family car. She and her family had been suffering from severe headaches, giddiness and nausea. The illness prevented her from flying back to Russia for Wednesday’s trial, she said.

”The exact nature of the act is not clear,” she told France 24. ”Was the intention to provoke or to harm us, to poison me? Those who did this clearly intended to keep me unaware of the presence of the substance.”

On Wednesday Moskalenko’s assistant, Valentin Moiseev, said the lawyer was awaiting the results of toxicology tests from a Strasbourg clinic.

Mercury is an element that occurs naturally. But exposure to high levels can damage the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and nervous system.

Police in Strasbourg said a preliminary investigation had been launched into Moskalenko’s claims but said they were reluctant to comment on the seriousness of the case before the results of further forensic testing were known.

Wednesday’s hearing was the first time that anyone has been brought to trial in connection with Politkovskaya’s killing. It follows widespread criticism of the official investigation. This week Moskalenko said the case had not been properly investigated. ”We were denied the basic right of getting access to the investigation. This violates the European convention on human rights,” she said.

So far Russian prosecutors have failed to identify who ordered Politkovskaya’s contract-style murder. They have also failed to catch the man they allege did it — a third Makhmudov brother called Rustam. He is said to have fled abroad. —