There couldn’t be a better choice for the title “Russia’s Best Defender of Human Rights” than lawyer Karinna Moskalenko. At the end of 2001, Moskalenko, 43, received the award “For Human Rights” from the Russian Federation’s Secretary for Human Rights. And she truly deserved it. Moskalenko is one of those rare persons to believe that one person truly can make a difference, no matter how terrible the system is. After many years of legal practice, she still has not become cynical and always takes pity on people against the power of “the system.” True to her religious beliefs, Karinna feels that one gets back in life only what one gives.
Moskalenko began defending citizens in Soviet courts in 1977. Back then, the young lawyer couldn’t fathom why, despite a virtual absence of proof of a defendant’s guilt, the court would almost always issue an accusatory verdict (obvinitelny prigovor). At that, the defense could cite very compelling and logical arguments, but the judges would not hear those when issuing the verdict. “I quickly realized that it is not just about one specific judge,” Moskalenko said. “It is a vice of the legal system as a whole, a system which does not hinge on the presumption of innocence, but rather has an accusatory character.”
Moskalenko said that little differentiates Russian courts with their Soviet predecessors: it is “impossible to prove anything either here or there.” Back in Soviet times, said Moskalenko, she realized she faced a choice: either resign to the fact that our court judges will only decide one way (i.e. become a cynic), or else fight and earn a reputation as a “crazy” human rights defender—someone who wants to fight virtually alone against the system. Moskalenko said she believes there is no such a thing as healthy cynicism, so she opted for the latter choice.
A glimmer of hope came ten years ago, with the beginning of perestroika. Against the background of a general democratization in society, some lawyers and judges began to believe that one could get a fair trial. “The media began to expose unfair and corrupt judges who, in a quest for statistics, put dozens of innocent people behind bars or locked up people guilty of totally different crimes.” Several progressive jurists succeeded in securing the adoption of the first Russian law allowing lawyers to challenge the actions of state functionaries. More glasnost and new laws helped derail some judges from their well-trodden tracks, and courts even began issuing some acquittals. But all-too-quickly society and the media tired of the horrifying details of court life, and the situation returned to where it had been before.
The majority of Moskalenko’s clients are poor people who come to see her as a last resort, already having been ripped off by unscrupulous lawyers who promised help but were in fact in cahoots with the judges. Moskalenko (and her Center for Assistance to International Defense) thus works mainly pro bono or on grants from American charity funds, which give money more and more rarely.
In 2000, for the first time lawyers from Moskalenko’s Center won several cases before the UN Committee on Human Rights. Moskalenko herself became the first Russian attorney to bring and win a case in the European Court, defending a banker which the court decided did not get a fair trial.
Yet, for Moskalenko, such high-profile cases are just a way of getting society’s attention focused on the destinies of normal people who don’t get exposure in the media. For instance, Moskalenko recently sent to Strasbourg documents on the case of a 16-year-old car thief. A group of high school students were brutally beaten after they were caught stealing a car from their own courtyard. “One of the students, upon getting out of the militia precinct, couldn’t stand or even sit,” Moskalenko said.
The doctor who examined the teenager found compressed fractures of two vertebrae. The doctor sent a notice to the Prosecutor’s Office, so that a criminal investigation could be launched against the militiamen who maimed the youth (who is now permanently disabled). Yet the Prosecutor’s Office did not open an investigation because “officially” the boys did not spend any time at the militia post, having been detained there illegally for two days without any official documents confirming their arrest. Then, during the trial, the judge went berserk when the defendant made a statement about being beaten, ordering the immediate incarceration of the youths, several of which served prison terms. Moskalenko is seeking to prove that the boys did not get a fair trial. She plans to take the case all the way to the European Court in Strasbourg if she has to.
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