More Poison

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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

ON OCT. 7, 2006 -- Vladimir Putin's birthday -- the crusading Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya was gunned down outside her Moscow apartment. Last week, pretrial hearings were scheduled for three alleged accomplices in the murder; the suspected gunman remains at large, and the sponsors of the hit have never been identified. Ms. Politkovskaya's family was due to be represented at the trial, which is being held in a closed military court, by Karina Moskalenko, a lawyer who has taken up the cause of some of Russia's best-known dissidents and prisoners. But Ms. Moskalenko could not attend. Instead she underwent testing in the French city of Strasbourg after complaining of headaches, nausea and swelling -- and after pellets of the poisonous heavy metal mercury were discovered in her family's car.

Perhaps this was an unfortunate accident; the police in Strasbourg say they are still investigating. But history suggests otherwise. Numerous opponents of Mr. Putin have been killed or gravely sickened by poisoning. They include Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko; dissident former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko; journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin; and Ms. Politkovskaya, who two years before her murder was poisoned while en route to cover the Beslan school takeover by Chechen terrorists.

Mr. Putin surely knows that many in the West regard him as responsible at least for the murder of Mr. Litvinenko, who was attacked in London with a dose of radioactive polonium a few weeks after Ms. Politkovskaya's slaying. Scotland Yard pinned the killing on a Moscow-based former KGB operative, and Mr. Putin's refusal to extradite him -- he was given a seat in the Russian parliament -- caused a nasty diplomatic spat with Britain. So it's chilling to consider that there would be another poisoning of another Putin enemy in another Western European city. Whoever targeted Ms. Moskalenko, her husband and their three children must have counted on the impunity that has prevailed in the previous cases.

Ms. Moskalenko has dedicated herself to the attempt to hold Mr. Putin's regime accountable. She has won 27 cases against it at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and has more than 100 pending. Her clients include the imprisoned former head of the Yukos oil company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and opposition leader Garry Kasparov. Ms. Moskalenko is a formidable opponent and is not easily frightened: She told the Moscow Times that "nothing will prevent me" from appearing at the next hearing of the Politkovskaya case on Nov. 17. Let's hope she's right.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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