To live so as not to feel ashamed: remembering lawyer Yury Schmidt

Tributes are flooding in to the renowned Russian human rights lawyer Yury Schmidt, who has died aged 75. Schmidt devoted much of his career to defending critics of the Russian government and others accused of political crimes, from environmental whistleblowers to oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Kristina Gorelik celebrates his life.  

Yuri Schmidt is best known for his defence of the former head of the YUKOS oil company Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a case to which he devoted the last years of his life and his remaining health and strength. The fact that he even took it on was an indication that the criminal prosecution of the oligarch was politically motivated, since Schmidt spent the last twenty years of an unimpeachable 50 year legal career defending people from the state’s abuse of power.

No ordinary lawyer

I first met Yury Markovich Schmidt when I was covering the notorious ‘spy’ cases that took place in Russia at the end of the 1990s. The security services had begun accusing scientists, ecologists and journalists of high treason for publishing information about the state of Russia’s ecology both at home and in the West, and for analysing the state of its military science and technology on open sources. This was the time of the absurd trials of Grigory Pasko, Igor Sutyagin, Aleksandr Nikitin and many others. I was looking at how people were once more being threatened with prison sentences for working with their counterparts in other countries. It was clear that the FSB was recovering from its humiliating defeat in the early Yeltsin years and was trying to regain the upper hand. I realised that Yury Schmidt also understood this, and that he was no ordinary lawyer. When I talked to him about the Nikitin case, which he had taken on and won (although it must be said that few people believed that these state sponsored trials would be successful), he made statements way beyond what could be expected from a member of the Russian legal profession.

Always to the point, with attention to the smallest detail and often a touch of sarcasm, Yury Schmidt was adept at conveying what was most important to him: respect for the individual and an absolute belief in freedom.     Yury Schmidt was equally unconventional in his procedural methods while working for his defendents. He had close links with journalists, called press conferences to explain what was happening and why, and made public statements on controversial matters from the possible reintroduction of the death penalty to the sentencing of Pussy Riot. Always to the point, with attention to the smallest detail and often a touch of sarcasm, Yury Schmidt was adept at conveying what was most important to him: respect for the individual and an absolute belief in freedom.     

I remember how during the Nikitin case Schmidt spoke to me about the public’s right to information about ecological issues, and how to stand up for one’s principles even at the risk of death. After all, the alleged crimes of Aleksandr Nikitin, a former naval officer and employee of the Bellona environmental NGO – high treason and espionage – were at that time still capital offences. Nikitin faced these terrible accusations for writing about accidents on Soviet nuclear submarines and radioactive pollution of the seas by the Russian Northern fleet.

Yury Schmidt (second right) was instrumental in the acquittal of Aleksandr Nikitin (second left), controversially accused of high treason and espionage. Photo: (cc) Flickr/The Bellona Foundation

But even then Schmidt, by showing that environmental safety issues cannot be a state secret, was defending not only Nikitin, but every Russian citizen, He was a defender of the public’s right to information and of human rights in general.

By winning the Nikitin case, Schmidt freed criminal law from another Soviet anachronism, that only lawyers with ‘privileged access’ could defend people accused of high treason: the court recognised this restriction as unconstitutional. For Yuri Schmidt this also meant a victory over his old enemy, the KGB: in the Soviet period he had not been allowed to defend the dissidents Sergey Kovalyov and Anatoly Shcharansky for want of this notorious ‘access’.

Schmidt nevertheless found ways to give legal advice, sometimes openly, sometimes not, and not only to dissidents but to others who had simply fallen foul of official abuse of power in the USSR, such as the brilliant poet and future Nobel Prize winner Iosif Brodsky

A lawyer who is also a defender of human rights in Russia is a rare animal indeed. You’ll never make much money at it; you’ll get a lot of hassle, and may end up in real danger: the state does not like people who criticise it and can decide to treat such freedom lovers as undesirables. Many lawyers avoid this type of case, but Yury, on the contrary, actively chose to take them on, however hopeless they might appear, while fully appreciating the potential consequences. His knowledge of searches and interrogations came not just at second hand. But he was never afraid to stand up to the authorities if he felt that they were trampling on people’s rights and freedoms. Most of his last cases were political: he always defended an individual against the state, whether he or she was a powerless refugee or a well known politician.

The first political case

According to Schmidt himself, the first time he represented a defendant in a politically motivated case was in 1989, when the eminent Soviet physicist and dissident Andrey Sakharov asked him to take on the case of Arkady Manucharov, an Armenian secessionist leader in Nagorno-Karabakh . Then, almost immediately afterwards, he defended the then head of the Republic of South Ossetia, Torez Kulumbegov, accused by the Georgian government of separatism and incitement to riot. And in 1993 acted for the Uzbek dissident Abdumanob Pulatov, who was charged with insulting his country’s president Islam Karimov.

In 1996, at the time of the Nikitin trial, Schmidt also took it on himself to protect the interests of Afghan refugees. He was the first lawyer in Russia to become involved with this issue and initiated the development of a process for giving asylum to political refugees. Tens of thousands of Afghans who found themselves in Russian territory at the time of the fall of the Najibullah regime in 1992 were unable to return to their homeland, but the Russian authorities gave them no refugee status - even those who were orphans brought up and educated in Russia. Yury Schmidt fought their case against Russia’s Federal Immigration Service, which was refusing them asylum.  

For many of these refugee cases Schmidt earned not a kopeck. Indeed he even tried to give them as much financial support as he could. He also refused to take any payment from the family of Galina Starovoitova, the Russian MP and co-chair of the ‘Democratic Russia’ movement who was gunned down in the hallway of the building where she lived.

Tens of thousands of Afghans who found themselves in Russian territory at the time of the fall of the Najibullah regime in 1992 were unable to return to their homeland. Yury Schmidt fought their case against Russia’s Federal Immigration Service, which was refusing them asylum.  

Yury Schmidt  lived up to the best traditions of the Russian legal profession. Perhaps, as Arseny Roginsky, chair of Memorial, Russia’s largest human rights organisation, once said, it was his blood group. Both his parents served time as political prisoners. His father, Mark Levin, was a social democrat involved in resistance to the Bolsheviks; his mother, Natalya Schmidt, was arrested during Stalin’s purges after the assassination of Kirov in 1934, and they met when both were in internal exile in Siberia. Three weeks after Yury’s birth in 1937 his father was again arrested, and his son was 19 when he saw him again. Mark Levin was then 47, and had spent 26 years of his life in the Gulag. So that, to quote  Yury Schmidt’s colleague, the well known human rights lawyer Karina Moskalenko, ‘Schmidt knew how a lack of freedom looked and smelled.’

Schmidt was the subject of a book in the ‘Lawyers for Freedom’ series, and received many awards for his principled stance and professionalism, including Russia’s highest judicial award, the Femida Prize, the ‘Lawyer of the Year’ award and an award from the New York based International League for Human Rights. The international NGO Human Rights Watch also presented Schmidt with a diploma for his work in this area, and the now defunct International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) gave him its first ever ‘Recognition Award’.

‘We have lost a wonderful person, someone who has helped me all these heavy years. He was a very good and courageous person, who for many decades (starting in “deep” Soviet times) defended those who had fallen foul of our authorities.’ (Mikhail Khodorkovsky)

But while some people gave him awards, others twice tried to deprive him of his ability to practise as a lawyer. The first time, in Soviet days, it didn’t last long: he soon managed to retrieve his professional rights and all the charges of extortion of money from a client were dropped. In 2005, however, Russia’s Federal Registration Service demanded that he be stripped of his status because as Khodorkovsky and Lebedev’s defence council he declared that their trial was a political one and that the charges against the defendants were fabricated. But the College of Advocates found that Schmidt’s actions did not breach its professional ethos.

Defending Khodorkovsky

The Khodorkovsky trial was without doubt the culmination of his life’s work, and he didn’t deny it. When asked about his profession, he would joke, ’I’m Khodorkovsky’s  lawyer.’

And indeed Yury Schmidt devoted all the last years of his life to defending Mikhail Khodorkovsky. The oil magnate was being accused of tax evasion, but suspicions grew that this was just an excuse for the Kremlin to rid itself of a political opponent, and that the reason for such judicial victimisation was head of state Vladimir Putin’s personal animosity towards the businessman. It was at this point that Yury Schmidt got involved in the case, to analyse the possible political background to this tax evasion case. Having looked at the evidence, he declared that the charges were undoubtedly politically motivated and decided to join the defendents’ legal team. It was thanks to Schmidt that the political and personal aspects of the Khodorkovsky-Lebedev case became widely publicised both in Russia and abroad.

Yury Schmidt fought vigorously for the rights of imprisoned Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Photo: (cc) RIA Novosti/Ilya Pitalyov

‘We have lost a wonderful person’, writes Mikhail Khodorkovsky from prison on his website, ’someone who has helped me all these heavy years. He was a very good and courageous person, who for many decades (starting in “deep” Soviet times) defended those who had fallen foul of our authorities. This kind of work is never easy, it can be dangerous, and it’s not very lucrative. But then, you never have to make any compromises with your conscience.

Yuri Markovich supported me greatly – not only as a lawyer, but also as a human being, someone who himself had been through much in his life and who knew people of the kind one can look up to as role models. I am never going to forget the long talks he and I had. Despite being gravely ill, Yuri Markovich still found the strength to carry out his duty as a defender to the very last.’

It was this task that helped Schmidt keep going, despite the illness which he knew was terminal. He wanted so much to see Khodorkovsky’s release from prison, but didn’t live to see it.

At the celebration of Yury Schmidt’s 75th birthday at the offices of Memorial in May last year, he lamented the fact that with more political cases than ever, he did not have the strength to get involved in all of them. ‘I have really tried to enhance the authority of my profession‘, he continued. ‘I have tried to live my life so as not to feel ashamed of myself.’ Now we in Russia need to continue to work for the cause to which Yuri Schmidt devoted his entire life. So as not to feel ashamed. Of ourselves.  

 

Thumbnail: (cc) RIA Novosti/Ilya Pitalyov

 

About the author

Kristina Gorelik is a Moscow based human rights reporter and broadcaster. 

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