City Mourns Lawyer Schmidt
Published: January 16, 2013 (Issue # 1742)
ALEXANDER BELENKY / SPT
Lawyer Yury Schmidt pictured last August at a public meeting in Petersburg.
The eminent human rights lawyer Yury Schmidt, who was regarded as a moral authority by thousands of democratic-minded Russians, died in a St. Petersburg clinic on Friday. He was 75.
The founder of the Russian Committee of Lawyers in Defense of Human Rights, which he established in 1991, Schmidt had been head of the defense team for imprisoned former Yukos Oil owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky since 2004.
Khodorkovsky’s case had turned into a lifelong cause for Schmidt, who referred to himself as “Khodorkovsky’s lawyer” in recent years.
Schmidt’s courageous battle with cancer became an example of will, stamina and character for the people around him. The serious illness did not dampen the spirit of the lawyer, who continued his duties in full, complete with court hearings and exhausting trips to visit Khodorkovsky at a penal colony in Petrozavodsk, Karelia.
“We have lost a fearless and selfless warrior of law,” said lawyer Boris Zolotukhin.
“We have lost a wonderful person, someone who has helped me all these heavy years,” Khodorkovsky, who is due to be released from jail by the end of 2014, when he will have served 11 years for fraud and tax evasion, said in a statement that was posted on his website in English. “He was a very good and courageous person and for many decades, starting in ‘deep’ Soviet times, defended those who had fallen afoul of our authorities.
“I hope that I will be able to manifest the same kind of courage when my time comes; at least I have an example to follow in my life,” Khodorkovsky added.
“Yury Schmidt was a lawyer by profession, and human rights advocate from the bottom of his heart,” said émigré dissident Vladimir Bukovsky.
Schmidt, who made continued efforts to raise international awareness of Khodorkovsky’s case and its political aspect — the oligarch had been a fierce opponent of the Kremlin, and made donations to opposition liberal parties — had said former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was treated more humanely after his capture than Khodorkovsky.
“When Saddam’s lawyers asked for an additional three months for him to familiarize himself with the case materials, they got a month and a half, but in 2005, Khodorkovsky, when the first trial started, wasn’t granted a single hour of the eight weeks he had requested,” Schmidt said after several months of working on the case.
“Instead of being sent to a prison in Moscow or in a neighboring region, Khodorkovsky is serving his term in a jail that is 7,000 kilometers away from Moscow, which you can only reach by a six-hour flight and another half-day drive by car along a bumpy road,” he added, referring to Khodorkovsky’s previous term in the Krasnokamenskaya colony near the city of Chita, Siberia. “This is not what you call accessible legal aid.”
From 1996 to 2000, Schmidt successfully defended the researcher and ecologist Alexander Nikitin, who remains the only person in the history of the U.S.S.R. and modern Russia to have won a treason or espionage case against the country’s security services. Until 1985, Nikitin served as a naval captain in the Soviet Northern Fleet, where he worked as a chief engineer on nuclear-powered submarines. In 1995, Nikitin wrote an analytical report for the Norwegian ecological organization Bellona on the potential environmental hazards of radioactive waste and decommissioned Russian nuclear submarines, specifically in northern Russia. The report resulted in him being charged with high treason.
In 2012, Schmidt received the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany for his long commitment to achieving the rule of law in Russia. The award became a vital sign of international recognition of the lawyer’s role as a defender of human rights.
“Yury Schmidt had been ill for some time, and, quite honestly, until the autumn of last year we all hoped that the illness would abate,” said Boris Vishnevsky, a lawmaker with the liberal faction Yabloko at the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, and a close friend of the lawyer. “Sadly, it did not happen. When I visited him at the end of December, Yury looked gravely ill but he remained amazingly composed, courageous and in good spirits. We will all remember him as someone who believed that good triumphs over evil, and who lived his life according to that simple principle.”
St. Petersburgers will be able to say farewell to Schmidt on Wednesday at a civil wake that will be held at the House of Architects at 52 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.