MOSCOW — A lawyer who has championed some of the Kremlin's most virulent critics said Wednesday that she fell ill after finding a mercury-like substance in her car, raising suspicions of politically motivated poisoning.
Karina Moskalenko was too sick to appear in court for pretrial hearings in the slaying of outspoken journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The human rights lawyer is representing the family of the reporter, who was gunned down two years ago.
Moskalenko said this week that she and her family suffered headaches, dizziness and nausea and were tentatively diagnosed with poisoning after she and her husband discovered balls of mercury in their car in Strasbourg, France. The attack was meant to send a message, she said. French police are investigating.
"People do not put mercury in your car to improve your health," Moskalenko told Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy. "I am very concerned because there were children in that car."
Moskalenko's colleagues were quick to point to political motives. They disagreed, however, over which case might have gotten her into the crosshairs of would-be assassins.
Moskalenko is a lawyer in a handful of cases that have irked and embarrassed Russian authorities — and poisoning is an increasingly familiar fate among the foes of Russia's powerful.
"I have no doubt it is a political crime. They tried to kill her," said Lev Ponomaryov, a leader of the For Human Rights movement. Ponomaryov linked the suspected poisoning to Moskalenko's work presenting the case of jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
"Moskalenko is active and smart, and she has every chance to win it," he said. "That is what the Russian authorities must be afraid of."
But Politkovskaya's slaying is a politically radioactive case in Russia. The fiery Kremlin critic, known for her unflinching accounts of human rights abuses committed by Russian forces in Chechnya, was shot dead in the doorway of her Moscow apartment house.
She previously had suffered a mysterious, debilitating sickness after drinking tea on a flight to southern Russia.
Three men are about to stand trial; one is a former Moscow police officer. The three have been charged with knowledge of or involvement in the slaying; the gunman is at large, and the mastermind is unknown.