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October 17th, 2008
Suspected Poison Attempt on Eve of Politkovskaya Murder Trial

The murder trial of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, which began behind closed doors in Moscow earlier this week, is already marred by intrigue. The lawyer representing Politkovskaya’s family, Karinna Moskalenko, fell suddenly ill after a suspicious liquid-metal substance was discovered in her car on Monday. French detectives have confirmed finding a large amount of mercury pellets hidden below her car seat and are now investigating whether Moskalenko was deliberately poisoned. Suffering from headaches, dizziness and nausea, she was hospitalized for tests near her home in Strasbourg, France. Her illness and hospitalization prevented her from getting on a flight to Russia to attend Wednesday’s hearing.

Anna Politkovskaya appearing in the WIDE ANGLE documentary The Russian Newspaper Murders two years before her own murder.

Politkovskaya was murdered two years ago at age 48 in a contract-style killing in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building on October 7, the birthday of then-President Vladimir Putin. Having won international acclaim for her reports exposing the brutality of Russian and Chechen troops in Chechnya, her murder immediately threw suspicion on the Russian and Chechen security forces. On the anniversary of Politkovskaya’s death last week, commemorative posts flooded the Russian blogosphere.

Three men are facing trial for connection with her killing: two Chechen brothers, Dzhabrail and Ibragim Makhmudov, charged with surveillance of Politkovskaya, and a Russian police officer, Sergei Khadzhikurbanov, charged with providing technical support. All three deny the accusations. So far, Russian authorities have failed to identify the mastermind of the murder, and the suspected gunman, a third Makhumdov brother, remains at large.

Colleagues from Politkovskaya’s newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, lobbied to have the case opened to the public and the media. But authorities decided instead on a military trial, claiming that much of the material involved is classified.

Moskalenko, who is representing Politkovskaya’s son and daughter, is a prominent human rights attorney whose clients have included Kremlin critics such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an oil tycoon jailed by Putin in 2003; opposition leader and former chess champion Garry Kasparov; and Alexander Litvinenko, a former K.G.B. officer who was murdered two years ago after ingesting a highly toxic radioactive substance. In an interview yesterday with the television station FRANCE 24, Moskalenko reacted to her suspicious run-in with mercury: “The exact nature of the act is not clear. Was the intention to provoke or to harm us, to poison me? Those who did this clearly intended to keep me unaware of the presence of the substance. But we’re still waiting for final results from police and forensic investigations.”

The Moscow judge at yesterday’s hearing refused a request that the session be delayed because of Moskalenko’s sudden illness, and pretrial hearings began without her. The next court date is set for November 17, with jury selection scheduled for the following day.

Prior to her murder, Anna Politkovskaya appeared in WIDE ANGLE’s 2004 film The Russian Newspaper Murders boldly testifying about the risks journalists face in modern-day Russia.

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