With the passing of a leading human rights advocate and the persecution of another, Russia’s political regression appears to be accelerating.
Yuri M. Schmidt, a veteran human rights lawyer who represented dissidents and others charged with political crimes, including jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, succumbed to cancer last weekend.
“Yuri Markovich Schmidt (left) was born on May 10, 1937, in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg. His father, a political dissident, was arrested shortly after Mr. Schmidt’s birth and sentenced to 19 years in a prison camp,” The New York Times reports:
He began representing prisoners charged with political crimes in the late 1980s. His clients included jailed leaders of political independence movements in the ethnic enclaves of Nagorno-Karabakh and South Ossetia as well as a journalist charged with defaming President Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan.
Mr. Schmidt often sought out clients: when a reformist St. Petersburg lawmaker, Galina V. Starovoitova, was found shot to death in an elevator in her apartment building in 1998, Mr. Schmidt found her sister at the funeral, hugged her and told her he would represent the family. His efforts helped lead to the conviction of a gunman and an accomplice in 2005.
Khodorkovsky said Mr. Schmidt had continued to visit him at the prison, in a remote spot more than 700 miles from Moscow, “despite being gravely ill.”
“This kind of work is never easy, it can be dangerous, and it’s not very lucrative,” Mr. Khodorkovsky said. “But then, you never have to make any compromises with your conscience.”
Members of the Moscow Helsinki Group have unanimously voted to re-appoint Lyudmila Alexeyeva, the Soviet-era dissident and leading rights activist, as the group’s head, despite her joint US-Russian citizenship. In retaliation for the Magnitsky Law passed by the US Congress, the Kremlin enacted a new legal provision authorizing the Ministry of Justice to suspend the work of a non-governmental organization headed by a foreign citizen.
“There is no doubt that we will all unanimously vote for Alexeyeva,” said Lev Ponomarev, the leader of For Human Rights. “And if they start to implement the ‘Alexeyeva law’, I will go to the constitutional court.”
Alexeyeva has denounced the authorities’ refusal to let a jailed member of the Pussy Riot punk band to defer a year of her prison sentence to spend time with her 5-year-old son. “The authorities continue to behave like beasts toward these women, because the people in power here are inhuman,” she said:
Kremlin critics are also incensed by a law Putin signed in December barring Americans from adopting Russian children, which critics say has made vulnerable orphans pawns to politics, Reuters reports.
Some 40,000 people marched in Moscow on Sunday to protest the ban, some denouncing Putin as a “child-killer”. He has promised that Russia will take measures to improve the lives of orphans and other children in the care of the state.
“When the authorities saw how angry people were about the law, they said, ‘Oh, look, we will make the conditions here better for children’,” said Alexeyeva. “But Alyokhina’s child is a child, too.”
The veteran rights defender is expected to be a contender for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. She was also in the running for last year’s prize, alongside several other Russian rights advocates, including Svetlana Gannushkina and Memorial.
Alexeyeva criticized the decision to award the prize to the European Union, rather than grass roots activists.
“To be honest, I don’t like this decision, because the European Union is a huge, fairly bureaucratic organization, and it’s clear what role the prize will play in its future policy — none, in my opinion,” she said.
“I would be very glad if this prize was given to political prisoners in Iran or (Russian) human rights defenders, but not the European Union, although I like the European Union,” she told the RIA Novosti news agency.
She added that the Nobel committee’s “trend — giving it to the president of a superpower one year, and to the European Union another year — I think it’s a certain erosion of the idea that is the foundation of this prize.”
The growing crackdown on Russian democracy and civil society activists is highlighted in the latest Freedom in the World survey from Freedom House, the US-based rights watchdog.
Russian President Vladimir Putin “heaped contempt on the values of open societies” over the past year, says the report, citing curbs on public demonstrations, attacks on foreign-funded NGOs, and restrictions on free expression in print and online.
The Moscow Helsinki Group and For Human Rights are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.