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Archive for Friday, February 8, 2008

Putin uses power to punish ailing opponent

February 8, 2008

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Another presidential campaign is under way this week - this one in Russia.

On March 2, Russians will vote in a pro-forma election for a successor to KGB man Vladimir V. Putin. The Kremlin has handpicked a former law professor, Dmitry Medvedev, though Putin may try to remain the power behind the scenes.

Medvedev, however, is trying to present a softer face than his mentor; he pledged in his first campaign speech last Friday to make everyone accountable before the law. Putin, by contrast, has used the law as a club to bludgeon opponents. If Medvedev means what he says, he ought to condemn a travesty of justice going on now in Moscow that makes Russia look as if it has reverted to the Stalin era.

Moscow courts are refusing medical treatment to a former Russian oil executive, Vasily Aleksanian, who is on trial for money laundering, and has late-stage AIDS. The aim is to force him to testify against imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Without the treatment, Aleksanian will die.

It is almost impossible to believe this case is going on in the 21st century, in a country whose president hobnobs with European leaders and President Bush. Khodorkovsky - once one of Russia's richest men - had been chief executive of Russia's largest oil producer, Yukos. He was sentenced to eight years in a Siberian prison colony, supposedly for tax evasion and fraud.

His real crime appears to have been his political ambitions. Other so-called oligarchs - men who acquired Russia's natural resources on the cheap during the turbulent post-communist years - have not been bothered, as long as they offered Putin no challenge. Meantime, the Kremlin has broken up Yukos; most of its assets were purchased at fire-sale prices by state-owned corporations.

This blatant manipulation of courts and laws seems to have been insufficient for Kremlin bosses. Now they are willing to tolerate the effective murder of Aleksanian because he won't give a false confession. A Moscow court says he can't be moved to an AIDS clinic because the defense didn't prove he was suffering from a lethal disease, but the court refused to admit his test results as evidence.

The European Court of Human Rights, whose decisions are supposed to be binding on Russia, has ruled three times that Aleksanian should be moved to a civilian medical facility. Russia's Supreme Court rejected the rulings.

Khodorkovsky has launched a prison hunger strike to protest the refusal to give Aleksanian medical treatment. The ex-tycoon says he has been given an "impossible moral choice": to confess to crimes he didn't commit and implicate others or to "become the cause of possible death" of Aleksanian.

Robert Amsterdam, one of Khodorkovsky's lawyers, got it just right when he said in a statement that use of the legal system in such a way evokes "a different chapter of Russian history."

If Aleksanian dies, this will be only the latest in a string of political murders that many believe were engineered by the Kremlin or Russia's intelligence services. The most internationally explosive was the murder of former Russian spy turned British citizen Alexander Litvinenko, who was an irritant to the Kremlin. He was killed by a rare radioactive isotope, polonium-210, that was put in his tea. The British believe it was administered by former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi.

Such an act, and access to polonium-210, would require authorization at highest Russian levels. Russian officialdom not only refuses to extradite Lugovoi, but has elevated him to membership in parliament. This case has also poisoned British-Russian relations.

And then there is the unsolved attempted murder of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko. He won Philadelphia's prestigious Liberty Medal in 2005, and was the hero of the Orange Revolution, when crowds came to the streets to protest the rigging of the 2004 election in Ukraine. Putin openly supported his opponent.

In 2004, a poison attempt on Yushchenko's life nearly killed him and left his face scarred. Last month, at the Davos World Economic Forum, Yushchenko told me the trail led to Moscow, where three waiters who he believes served him the poison have fled for refuge. He will ask Putin to extradite the three - all Ukrainian citizens - at a meeting on Tuesday.

I asked whether his case resembled that of Litvinenko and Lugovoi. His answer: "Yes, like Lugovoi." Though the trail in both cases leads to Moscow, they will probably never be solved.

But the trial of Aleksanian is going on in public. If he dies, responsibility will rest squarely with official Russia. President-to-be Medvedev says he wants everyone held accountable to the law. If he means it, he will have to change Kremlin behavior that uses laws as a club to bludgeon opponents.

- Trudy Rubin is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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