Fri, Feb 02, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Human rights judge says poisoned while in Russia

THE GUARDIAN , MOSCOW

The former president of the European Court of Human Rights on Wednesday said he had been poisoned during a visit to Russia in late October -- three days before the former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko was fatally poisoned in London.

Luzius Wildhaber, who retired last month as Europe's most senior judge, told a Swiss newspaper that he had fallen violently ill after a three-day trip to Moscow.

The judge has been the subject of persistent criticism from Russia for upholding a series of complaints by Chechen human rights campaigners.

Russian officials yesterday dismissed Wildhaber's allegations as laughable.

Valery Zorkin, the chairman of Russia's constitutional court, said the allegations were perplexing. The judge seemed fine during his three-day visit, he said.

"As far as I remember, food poisoning took place in reality ... it was merely food poisoning," he said.

Russian officials also queried why the judge had gone public with his claims now, months after his alleged poisoning.

In the interview, Wildhaber said he had decided to send his blood samples to a forensic laboratory after reading about the death in London of Alexander Litvinenko, who was poisoned on Nov. 1 with a massive dose of radioactive polonium-210. But when he asked for his blood samples, he was told the Swiss clinic had destroyed them.

"I wanted to solve the puzzle," Wildhaber said.

Yesterday a spokesman for the European Court of Human Rights said there was "nothing to indicate that the cause of Mr Wildhaber's illness -- septicaemia caused by staphylococcal infection -- was suspicious."

"The fact that Mr Wildhaber fell ill shortly after returning from Russia provides no basis for the speculation in the media," he said.

But officials conceded yesterday that the Kremlin had been annoyed by a series of judgments by the European Court of Human Rights and regarded it as pathologically anti-Russian and biased.

The court has condemned Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya and ruled against complaints of discrimination by ethnic Russians in the Baltics.

But an autumn 2002 ruling appears to have especially incensed Moscow. The court upheld the appeal against extradition of a group of 13 Chechens wanted by Russia who had fled to Georgia.

The 70-year-old judge retired on Jan. 18. He was unavailable for comment yesterday.

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