We are heartened to see the mainstream media pick up the story we blogged about earlier in the week, via the always-brilliant Paul Goble, regarding the Kremlin’s latest horrific physical assault on its critics. The New York Times reports:
French police are investigating the discovery of toxic mercury pellets in the car of a human rights lawyer who was taken ill in Strasbourg on Tuesday, a day before pretrial hearings in Moscow into the killing of one of her best-known clients, the journalist and Kremlin critic Anna Politkovskaya.
The case recalled events almost two years ago when Alexander Litvinenko, a former K.G.B. officer and a vocal critic of Vladimir V. Putin, died after ingesting a highly radioactive toxin, polonium 210. Scotland Yard said he had been murdered.
Ms. Politkovskaya, who had chronicled allegations of abuse in Russia’s wars in Chechnya, was shot to death in her apartment in Moscow a few weeks before Mr. Litvinenko was poisoned. Critics of Mr. Putin, then president and now prime minister, said the two killings were part of a pattern of Kremlin-backed actions against its foes.
On Wednesday, pretrial hearings into Ms. Politkovskaya’s killing began behind closed doors in a military court in Moscow. But her lawyer, Karinna Moskalenko — among the best-known Russian human rights lawyers — was not there.
The Strasbourg police said Ms. Moskalenko’s husband, a chemist, had discovered “about 10 little pellets of liquid metal” in the family car on Sunday, on the floor of both the driver and passenger sides of the vehicle, Le Figaro newspaper reported, quoting an unidentified source close to the police inquiry. Analysis by toxicologists had identified the substance as mercury, which can damage organs and the immune and nervous systems.
Ms. Moskalenko complained of headaches and vomiting on Tuesday. Doctors examined her and her family on the same day.
“People do not put mercury in your car to improve your health,” Ms. Moskalenko told Ekho Moskvy, a Russian radio station, later that day.
A police officer said the presence of mercury might have been the result of an accident before the Moskalenko family bought the car, used, in August.
But Anna Stavitskaya, another lawyer representing the Politkovskaya family, said the mercury might have been part of an attempt to intimidate Ms. Moskalenko.
In New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists said it was “deeply concerned” about her welfare, citing news reports saying Ms. Moskalenko “was the target of an apparent poisoning in Strasbourg” and “had felt weak for several days.”
Ms. Moskalenko spends much of her time in Strasbourg, in eastern France, pursuing cases at the European Court of Human Rights, according the station. Some of her cases have been Chechens complaining of human rights abuses. She has represented Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed oil tycoon. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ms. Moskalenko’s clients included Gary Kasparov, the former chess champion who has become an opposition political leader in Russia, and Mr. Litvinenko, the former K.G.B. officer.
At the trial in Moscow, a judge refused a request by lawyers for Ms. Politkovskaya’s family that the hearing be delayed due to Ms. Moskalenko’s illness.
Two Chechen brothers, Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov, are accused of conducting surveillance of Ms. Politkovskaya. A former police officer, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, is accused of proving technical help. All three deny the charges.
Ms. Politkovskaya’s supporters argue that a third Chechen, suspected of shooting her, is on the run.
The court failed to decide whether to allow media access to cover the trial, which is being held at a military court in Moscow, authorities say, because of Mr. Khadzhikurbanov’s former ties to law enforcement.
Ms. Stavitskaya said that while she would like the trial opened to journalists, she does not think that the court will allow it.
“They have no basis for closing the trial,” she said. “We want this to be accessible to the people, so that they can reach their own conclusions.”
The next hearing is set for Nov. 17, with jury selection scheduled the following day.