Assassination of a lawyer

By Lesley Pritchard, staff writer

On January 19, 2009, Russian lawyer Stanislav Markelov was doing what some lawyers here might find themselves doing on any given day. He had just finished briefing reporters on an important case and was walking down a busy street in Moscow with a journalist who wanted to continue the conversation.

What happened next was anything but typical. The 34-year-old human rights lawyer and the 25-year-old female reporter near him were shot and killed by unknown assassins.

There is speculation that Markelov was targeted because he represented the family of a teenager who had been raped and murdered by a Russian army colonel in 2000. Authorities had granted the colonel an early release from prison, and Markelov was speaking out against the release.

Markelov was known as a man who was not afraid to make enemies within the ranks of the government. He routinely defended people who said they were beaten and tortured by Russian special police forces. He also served as director of the Russian Rule of Law Institute, a civil liberties group. Human rights observers are likening his death to the 2006 murder of Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist and outspoken Kremlin critic.

Law Society President Gordon Turriff, QC believes that Markelov’s assassination should be important to BC lawyers for a number of reasons. It serves as a reminder of the pressures some lawyers face in their work. It is also a reminder of the importance of lawyer independence.

“It would be intolerable if lawyers were restricted in doing what they honestly believe must be done, as they pursue their client causes, to ensure the rule of law prevails,” Turriff said. “A lawyer does not have to be gunned down on a busy street to have that independence threatened.”

There are many lawyers in this province, both past and present, whose work puts them at odds with governments and their agents while representing a client. Most of us can name lawyers whose relentless interest in certain issues makes them an irritant to authoritative bodies.

Turriff believes lawyers must all be vigilant in preserving their independence. “These lawyers have a job to do, and as long as they do it professionally, there should not be interference. People can be on the margins and still be very effective lawyers — in fact some of the best lawyers are the ones who are on the margins.”