Woman with a human rights mission

June 16, 1995

Karina Maskalenko is a Russian human rights lawyer with a European mission.

She says: "My client has been convicted of a murder he didn't do. But that is not the issue here. The European Court doesn't care whether he did it or not. What they want to know is whether the Russian Court did everything in its power to ensure that he had a fair trial."

And Ms Maskalenko says she can prove that her client did not commit the crime. She added: "In violation of every possible code of legal practice no witnesses for the defence were called. My client's conviction rests on the statement of just one person. I have appealed to every court in Russia, and now my hopes rest with the European Court of Human Rights."

If Ms Maskalenko is successful she will make legal history by being the first Russian to take a case to the European Court of Human rights. She had just finished a programme on Human Rights Law, organised by the University of Birmingham, and so she could speak with increased confidence about the criteria necessary for an appeal to the European Court. Her appreciation and enthusiasm for the Birmingham course was shared by the 29 other participants from Eastern Europe, which included a Czech High Court judge, a senior specialist from the Lithuanian ministry of justice and a public prosecutor from Poland.

Jeremy McBride, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Birmingham, explained the origins of the programme: "Five years ago we set up the first of these programmes, after meeting with the director of human rights in the Council of Europe and discussing ways of helping the development of human rights in eastern and central Europe. It is funded by the Council of Europe, Nuffield Foundation and the Soros Foundation. They pay for all costs of the participants, including travel, accommodation and living expenses. The course consists of six weeks of intense academic theoretical study followed by six weeks of placements with human-rights activists in different areas. Participants also are able to attend United Kingdom courts and watch our legal process in action."

Jeremy McBride organises everything, from the choice of candidates, to arranging their travel, accommodation, placements and cultural programme. As a specialist in international law he also gives most of the lectures. But every year guest specialist speakers are invited as well.

He pointed out that human rights are "not a black and white issue. They are perceived differently in different areas. For example, in the Baltic states human rights are seen as right for Russian: in trying to kick out the Russians they are violating human rights. But the course is not to tell students what human rights are, as they differ from place to place, but to get them to think through the issues that they deal with and to familiarise them with the criteria required by the European Court for the cases it deals with".

Ms Maskalenko, meanwhile, has been inspired by the Birmingham course. She is confident that Russia, although not yet a member of Council of Europe, will sooner or later be admitted, and is waiting impatiently to take her case there. She was also enthusiastic about her placement in London with the Advice on Independent Legal Rights in Europe Centre, also organised by Birmingham University.

Mr McBride says it is difficult to quantify the success of the Birmingham programme now as it can take four or five years for a case to work its way to the European Courts of Human Rights, and this is only the fifth year of the course's existence.

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