The former president of the European Court of Human Rights today claimed he was 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 (pictured above), 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.
In an interview with the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Mr Wildhaber said he had travelled to Russia to attend an international conference for constitutional lawyers. He said that on the last day of his trip he had gone on an excursion with another Swiss lawyer, Karl Eckstein, to the historic city of Vladimir, 112 miles east of Moscow. The two men ate a meal with officials.
Two days later, on his return to his home city of Basle, Mr Wildhaber collapsed. Doctors diagnosed severe blood poisoning and said that when an ambulance arrived at his house he was minutes from death. The judge was forced to take a month off work from his job in Strasbourg.
"After everything that I have experienced at the European court I simply have to take all possibilities into account," Mr Wildhaber said, adding that he had been threatened by Russia in the past. "The Russian government has repeatedly dubbed the court as Russia-phobic," he said.
Russian officials today dismissed Mr Wildhaber's allegations as laughable and said there was no evidence he had been poisoned on Russian soil. Valery Zorkin, the chairman of Russia's constitutional court, said the allegations were perplexing. The judge had 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."
Russian officials also queried why the judge had gone public with his claims now, months after his alleged poisoning.
In the interview, Mr Wildhaber said he had decided to send his blood samples to a forensic laboratory after reading about Litvinenko, who was poisoned on November 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," he said.
Mr Eckstein also fell ill. The lawyer found himself sleeping "18 to 20 hours a day" after their joint excursion, the judge said. "I suspect that - whatever it was - happened during our trip to Vladimir," Mr Wildhaber said.
Today 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 told the Guardian.
But officials conceded today 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 regularly condemned Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya, and has 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 Neue Züricher Zeitung said Russia's ambassador to the Council of Europe turned up in Mr Wildhaber's office and said that unless the men were handed over within 24 hours Russia would blame the court for the Moscow theatre siege when Chechen extremists took 850 people hostage. "It was a vile form of blackmail," Mr Wildhaber told the paper.
The 70-year-old judge retired on January 18. He was unavailable for comment today.