Russian Lawyer in Slain Journalist Case Says She, Family Poisoned

A Russian human rights lawyer said she and her family have been poisoned by a suspicious substance found in her car, making her too ill to attend Wednesday's opening day in the trial of three men accused of slaying journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

Human rights and media groups described the incident as an apparent attempt to intimidate Karinna Moskalenko, a lawyer who has represented Kremlin foes including chess champion Garry Kasparov.

Moskalenko told Ekho Moskvy radio on Tuesday that she and her children have had headaches, dizziness and nausea over the past few days. She also said her husband found a significant amount of a mercury-like substance in their car Sunday in Strasbourg, France.

She said she had been hospitalized for testing and that doctors had given her and other family members a preliminary diagnosis of poisoning.

Moskalenko could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday. She told Ekho Moskvy it may have been an attempt to frighten her, and did not rule out a connection to the Politkovskaya murder trial.

Politkovskaya, whose reports on human rights abuses in Russia and especially Chechnya embarrassed the Kremlin and its allies, was shot to death in her Moscow apartment building in October 2006.

This is the first trial held in connection with the journalist's killing. It has already been marred by the absence of the suspected triggerman, who prosecutors say has fled to Western Europe, and the lack of an answer to the crucial question of who was behind the killing.

Several Russians who have criticized or angered the Kremlin — including Politkovskaya herself — have been victims of alleged poisoning attacks in recent years.

Politkovskaya fell seriously ill with food poisoning after drinking tea on a flight from Moscow to southern Russia in 2004, which prevented her from covering the hostage crisis in Beslan in which more than 330 people were killed. Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko died of radiation poisoning in Britain in 2006, weeks after Politkovskaya was gunned down.

Moskalenko is a lawyer for Politkovskaya's family and for imprisoned former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. She also represented Kasparov, the former chess champion, after he was detained last year during an anti-Kremlin protest.

Moskalenko spends much of her time helping Russians press claims against the government at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which puts her at the forefront of challenges to Russia's international image. Last year, she weathered an attempt to have her disbarred.

Anna Stavitskaya, another lawyer for Politkovskaya's family, said the trial judge refused her request to postpone the initial procedural hearings until Moskalenko could make it to Moscow, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.

However, the state-run RIA-Novosti news agency cited a defense lawyer as saying the judge set the next hearing for Nov. 17.

It was unclear whether Moskalenko had planned to make any specific arguments Wednesday, but lawyers for victims' relatives often play a significant role in Russian trials.

Politkovskaya's slaying deepened Western concerns about Russia's course and underscored the risks run by independent Russian journalists. She was one of at least 13 journalists killed in contract-style slayings during Vladimir Putin's eight-year presidency, and few suspects have been prosecuted.

Relatives and colleagues of Politkovskaya have welcomed the trial but stressed the need for investigators to determine who was behind the killing and find the man accused of pulling the trigger. Prosecutors say that suspect, Rustam Makhmudov, has fled the country.

The suspects being tried on murder charges are Sergei Khadzhikurbanov — a former police officer with Moscow's anti-organized crime unit — and Makhmudov's brothers Ibragim and Dzhabrail. They are being tried together with Pavel Ryaguzov, a former Federal Security Service officer who is accused of criminal links with Khadzhikurbanov.

The chief investigator in the case has said prosecutors believe Khadzhikurbanov organized details of the killing and that one Makhmudov brother followed her and fed information on her movements to the other, who was near the site of the killing and passed the details along to the shooter.

The trial is being held in a military court. Amid concerns in the West and among Kremlin critics about the fairness of Russia's justice system, relatives and colleagues of Politkovskaya are calling for the trial to be open to the public, but RIA-Novosti quoted defense lawyer Murad Musayev as saying it appeared likely it would be closed.

That decision will be made at the next session, Musayev said.

The defense on Wednesday requested a jury trial, Stavitskaya said, according to ITAR-Tass.