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Russian suspects poisoning

A rights lawyer and her family became ill after they discovered a mercury-like substance in their car in France.

October 16, 2008|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — A lawyer who has championed some of the Kremlin's most virulent critics said Wednesday that she fell ill after finding a mercury-like substance in her car, raising suspicions of politically motivated poisoning.

Karina Moskalenko was too sick to appear in court here for pretrial hearings in the slaying of outspoken journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The rights lawyer is representing the family of the reporter, who was gunned down two years ago.

Moskalenko told news agencies this week that she and her family suffered headaches, dizziness and nausea and were tentatively diagnosed with poisoning after she and her husband discovered mercury in their car in Strasbourg, France. The attack was meant to send a message, she said. French police are investigating.

"People do not put mercury in your car to improve your health," Moskalenko told Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy. "I am very concerned because there were children in that car."

Moskalenko's colleagues were quick to point to political motives. They disagreed, however, over which controversial case may have gotten her into the cross hairs of would-be assassins. Moskalenko is a lawyer in several cases that have irked and embarrassed Russian authorities -- and poisoning is an increasingly familiar fate among the foes of Russia's powerful.

"I have no doubt it is a political crime. They tried to kill her," said Lev Ponomaryov, a leader of the For Human Rights movement. In a phone interview, Ponomaryov linked the suspected poisoning to Moskalenko's work presenting the case of jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

"Moskalenko is active and smart, and she has every chance to win it," he said. "That is what the Russian authorities must be afraid of."

But Politkovskaya's slaying is a politically radioactive case in Russia. The fiery Kremlin critic, known for her unflinching accounts of brutal rights abuses committed by Russian forces in Chechnya, was shot dead in her Moscow apartment house on the birthday of then-President Vladimir Putin.

She had previously suffered a mysterious, debilitating sickness after drinking tea on a flight to southern Russia.

The questions of who carried out and who ordered the hit on Politkovskaya remain unanswered. Three men are about to stand trial; one is a former Moscow police officer. Although the three have been accused of knowledge of or involvement in the slaying, the suspected gunman remains at large, and the mastermind is unknown.

"What I want very much is for those who ordered it and the assassin to be established," Ilya Politkovsky, the journalist's son, told reporters Wednesday outside the military court building in Moscow.

In Khodorkovsky, Moskalenko represents a client who clashed publicly with Putin and was subsequently jailed on charges of tax evasion and fraud. Khodorkovsky, the founder of the Yukos oil empire, is still imprisoned in Siberia. Last week, he was disciplined after his jailhouse letters were published in Esquire.

Moskalenko has also defended former chess champion and leading Kremlin critic Garry Kasparov.

Yelena Lipster, Moskalenko's colleague in the Yukos trial, said she had exchanged e-mails with the ill attorney.

"She says somebody obviously tried to prevent her from coming to Moscow," Lipster said. "I am sure the authorities are concerned because Karina is very outspoken and is not afraid to lash out at the government."

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megan.stack@latimes.com

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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