08.31.137:00 PM ET

Female Judge In Putin's Crosshairs

Tamara Morshakova is one of Russia's most illustrious legal minds—and the target of a sprawling Kremlin witch hunt. Anna Nemtsova reports from Moscow.

The reception room at the Echo of Moscow radio station—a famous hangout of Russia’s intelligentsia—was crowded and tense. With just minutes to go before a talk show devoted to the Russian criminal court system, guests crowded around an elegant woman who was the evening’s star: Tamara Morshakova, a retired judge, professor, former deputy head of the Russian Constitutional Court, member of President Vladimir Putin’s human-rights council, and one of the prime targets of a spurious witch-hunt by the Kremlin.

Morshakova’s story has been the talk of Moscow for the past few weeks, ever since the Investigative Committee—Russia’s toughest law enforcement organization—questioned her for two days for her alleged involvement in the so-called “Case of Experts.” The convoluted case involves allegations that academics, judges, and social activists received foreign funds to secretly push for liberalization and to convince the government to be lenient on jailed former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Many of the Kremlin’s critics have fled the country after similar interrogations by the Investigative Committee, to escape the threat of prison.

Meanwhile, the irony of the role reversal in Morshakova’s case escaped no one: the woman who had once ruled the court system with an iron fist was now being threatened by it at the final stage of her career.

But Morshakova is determined to stay in Russia, despite the fact that, as she calmly told the Echo of Moscow crowd, “the authorities consider me the leader of an organized criminal gang.”

Even Putin himself has been impressed by Morshakova’s professionalism and her unflappable demeanor. At a meeting of the Development of Civil Society council last November, Morshakova spoke about official corruption at the early stages of government investigations, looking through her glasses straight at the Russian president. Somebody suggested to Putin that he should interrupt Morshakova, as she violated the 10-minute protocol for council speeches. But Putin preferred to keep listening: “Do not interrupt, she is the best lawyer in the country,” Putin said, loud enough for the council’s other members to hear.

During her speech, Morshakova urged Putin to reform the police system and stamp out the widespread practice of bribes. “The president said there would be too much of a paperwork hassle,” Morshakova told The Daily Beast, during a visit at her spacious Presidential Human Rights council office on Ilyinka Avenue. “No, I was not afraid when Putin spoke—I felt more nervous preparing for my university lectures.” There were stacks of her own books and the books of other prosecutors on her desks, published with help from foreign grants. But Morshakova says that she never took any money from Khodorkovsky or his company, Yukos.

When investigators called Morshakova last month and asked her to appear for questioning in the “Case of Experts,” her daughter and grandchildren urged her to leave the country before it was too late. The family hoped she would follow the example of Sergey Guriyev, the rector of Moscow’s New Economic School. One of Russia’s top economists, Guriyev packed up and took off for Paris after investigators broke into his email and seized years of correspondences. Morshakova says she did not advise Guriyev to flee, but that she understands his decision. “The prisons are full, people suffer in horrible conditions. I cannot stop anybody who fears prison.”

“We all know we are not criminals,” she says. “We are experts who produced reports [on Khodorkovsky] upon [former] President [Dmitry] Medvedev’s request. But in the Investigative Committee, they invent criminal stories and instruct judges what decisions to make.”

She knows that no judge in the country will support her if the Investigative Committee decides to throw her in jail. She has seen into the darkest corners of Russia’s court system, and knows the pressure that judges are put under. “Every judge in Russia is fearful of losing his career, along with a 500,000 ruble salary each month. They see me as their enemy, although I pushed for independence all my life,” she says.

Almost every morning this summer, her friends and colleagues have called with bad news: investigators are calling them in for questioning, too. Morshakova does not rule out prison in the near future. “Today, we have lawyers in our leadership—both Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev have law degrees—but they do not know what the rule of law means,” she says. “Under any scenario, they aim to demonstrate to all reformers who come after me: You are either with us or against us.”