MOSCOW, January 12 (RIA Novosti) – An acclaimed Russian human rights lawyer, who defended tycoon-turned-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other high-profile dissenters, died Saturday after a long battle with cancer, media reported.
Yury Shmidt was 75. No funeral arrangements were announced as of late Saturday.
Khodorkovsky already offered condolences on his website, praising Shmidt for a “paragon of courage.” He was echoed by US Ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, and many of Shmidt’s prominent colleagues, though not any Russian governmental officials.
In a country where the rule of law is shaky at best, Shmidt mounted an almost quixotic crusade for justice, made even more impressive for his track record of court victories.
Born in 1937 to a family of victims of Stalinist repressions, Shmidt graduated from the law school of the Leningrad State University in 1960.
His family background prevented him from working in the law enforcements, limiting his career options to lawyer. Moreover, the same background prevented him from working on the mostly classified cases against the Soviet dissidents, to whom he had close ties.
But he made a name for himself in the profession defending people in economic crimes – the forerunners of Russia’s now-budding capitalism, then ruthlessly suppressed by the Communist regime.
The perestroika allowed Shmidt to work on political cases, which was his area of expertise for the rest of his life, even to the detriment to his financial well-being.
His first major triumph came in 1999, when he secured an acquittal for environmental activist Alexander Nikitin from the Norway-based group Bellona who was accused of espionage over his exposés about radiation hazards in Russia’s Far North. The process was a four-year-long Kafka-esque legal battle that even saw Shmidt force the Constitutional Court to revise federal legislation.
Since 2004, Shmidt was the head of the legal team for Khodorkovsky, who faced economic charges that Shmidt insisted were fabricated by the Kremlin to punish the businessman for his political ambitions.
His ardor at the task even prompted the authorities to unsuccessfully attempt to strip him of lawyer’s status – something that happened to him once in Soviet times – though Shmidt failed to prevent a guilty verdict for his client in related cases in 2005 and 2010.
“I thanked him for keeping me [alive],” Shmidt was cited as saying about Khodorkovsky, who is currently set to walk out on parole in 2014. “I want to see his release from prison.”
Shmidt was also active as a human rights activist, publishing articles on topics such as extremism and ethnic hatred.
He accumulated a long list of awards over the course of his career, including a special prize from Human Right Watch in 1993 and the German Federal Cross of Merit in 2012.
Shmidt is survived by a wife and two sons.