Politkovskaya Trial Starts Without Lawyer

MTLawyer Karina Moskalenko pictured outside a Moscow court in May 2005.
The Moscow District Military Court opened preliminary hearings into the killing of investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya on Wednesday despite the absence of her family's lead lawyer, who fears that shewas poisoned with mercury in France.

Judge Yevgeny Zubov rejected an appeal by Politkovskaya's family to postpone the trial until the lawyer, Karina Moskalenko, returned to Moscowand to set the next hearing for Nov. 17.

Moskalenko vowed not to miss the hearing. "I'm going to be at Anna Politkovskaya's trial on Nov. 17. Nothing will prevent me again," she said by telephone from Strasbourg, where she lives part time, working as a civil rights lawyer at the International Court for Human Rights.

Moskalenko said she could not attend Wednesday because she had to wait for the results of a French police investigation into whether there had been an attempt to poison her. "We found something suspicious in the car, and we called the police. I cannot give any more information until the police report back," she said.

Sergei Sokolov, deputy editor at Novaya Gazeta, where Politkovskaya had worked, said Moskalenko went to the Strasbourg police on Tuesday after feeling ill for several days and then finding a mercury-like substance under the floor mats of her car.

He described her symptoms as weakness, nausea, coughing, headaches and swelling. A doctor examined and released her, he said.

French police are expected to disclose the results of their investigation and a test of the substance Friday, he said.

"People do not put mercury in your car to improve your health," Moskalenko told Ekho Moskvy radio later Wednesday.

Inhaling mercury vapors for a long time can damage the brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, nervous and immune systems.

Moskalenko's husband, a chemist, found "about 10 little pellets of liquid metal" on the floor of both the driver and passenger sides of the car on Sunday, Le Figaro reported Wednesday, citing a source close to the investigation. "It seems the quantity of the metal was not enough to cause severe health problems," the source said.

Moskalenko's son, Rodion, said by telephone from Strasbourg that he, his brother and father felt fine.

The poisoning scare casts a cloud over the start of the Politkovskaya murder trail. Three men have been charged in the death: two ethnic Chechens, brothers Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov, and a former officer in the anti-organized crime unit of the Moscow police department, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov.

The Moscow court, meeting behind closed doors Wednesday, decided that the accused would remain in custody for six more months and that the case would be heard before a jury, said Anna Stavitskaya, a Politkovskaya family lawyer.

Stavitskaya said the next hearing would decide whether the trial would be open to the public. Jury selection will begin Nov. 18, she said.

A lawyer for the Makhmudov brothers, Murad Musayev, told reporters in remarks shown on NTV television that investigators had no firm evidence of his clients' guilt.

He added: "We understand from the judge that the hearing will be held behind closed doors. He explained this by saying that there is secret material in the case."

Novaya Gazeta and the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists called for an open trial.

Politkovskaya's son Ilya told reporters outside the court that the prosecution's case was weak and incomplete because investigators had failed to find out who had ordered the killing and who had pulled the trigger. "This crime has not been solved yet," he said. "The people being prosecuted are just a small part. I cannot say if they are guilty or not. The jury will answer that question."

Investigators suspect that Rustam Makhmudov, a Chechen who has not been apprehended, acted as the triggerman and are looking for a number of other people suspected of helping organize the killing.

Politkovskaya was one of the strongest critics in the media of the Kremlin's handling of the conflict in Chechnya. She was gunned down in the elevator of her apartment building in central Moscow on Oct. 7, 2006.

Moskalenko and her team of lawyers have won 27 cases filed by Russian citizens against the Russian government before the European Court of Human Rights and have more than 100 cases pending, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Her clients include former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Garry Kasparov, an opposition leader and former chess champion, the organization said.

She has served as a lawyer for Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB officer who was killed by polonium poisoning in London in 2006. Another former security service officer, State Duma Deputy Andrei Lugovoi, is wanted by British authorities in connection with Litvinenko's death.