Frontlines

The Soviet dissidents have a lawyer—in Montreal

Ken Becker April 30 1979
Frontlines

The Soviet dissidents have a lawyer—in Montreal

Ken Becker April 30 1979

The Soviet dissidents have a lawyer—in Montreal

Frontlines

CLOSEUP

Ken Becker

A lawyer without history or literature is a mechanic, a mere working mason; if he possesses some knowledge of these, he may venture to call himself an architect—Sir Walter Scott, Guy Mannering (1815)

Irwin and Ariela Cotier were married March 25 in Montreal. There were 300 guests at the reception. But the two people who drew Irwin and Ariela together, who were, in effect, responsible for the match, were most conspicuous by their absence: Avital Shcha-

ransky was in Washington, lobbying for her husband, having dinner with Israeli

Prime Minister Menachem

Begin on the eve of the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; her husband, Anatoly Shcharansky, was in the Tatar Republic, in the Kama River valley of the Soviet Union, in Chistopol prison.

Irwin Cotier, 38 years old, a secondgeneration Canadian, a Jew of Eastern European descent, law professor at McGill University, has spent the last two years trying to free Anatoly Shcharansky. Though they’ve never met, Cotier is Shcharansky’s lawyer. Ariela Cotier, fourth-generation Jerusalemite, dedicated Zionist, close friend of Avital Shcharansky, has spent the last year trying to free Anatoly Shcharansky. She was Cotier’s researcher before she became his wife.

That’s why on the night of their wedding they surveyed the felicity that surrounded them and sensed a certain void. They reminded each other that the day after Avital and Anatoly Shcharansky were married she was forced to leave the Soviet Union; that the Shcharanskys’ separation happened nearly five years ago; that she has not spoken to him since his arrest on March 15, 1977. “Now,” says Cotier, “we can only hope _ that someday our families will be D

together; that, someday, our children will play together.”

Cotier first met Avital Shcharansky in Montreal in the winter of 1975 at the home of mutual friends. It was her first trip to North America. She was already living in Israel and already spending most of her time campaigning for her husband’s right to leave the Soviet Union. Anatoly Shcharansky, fast becoming a leading spokesman for the Jewish dissident movement in Russia, was at the time a refusenik (the name Soviet Jews have given themselves after they’ve been denied permission to emigrate to Israel). “I saw in Avital’s dark eyes an urgent cry for help,” says Cotier. “I felt an immediate personal empathy for this woman and her plight.”

Cotier had been concerned with the fortunes of Soviet Jews for some time. In 1962, while on a university fellowship in Poland, he spent four months travelling in the Soviet Union, studying its legal system. But what he really studied was the faces of Soviet Jews, American writer Elie Wiesel’s “Jews of silence.” Their eyes told Cotier what the Shcharanskys and the Orlavs and the Sakharovs and the Ginzburgs would articulate in the ’70s. “I realized then,” says Cotier, “that the real Jews of silence were us here in Canada and the United States.”

In the spring of 1964 Cotier joined a demonstration on the McGill campus, believed to be the first mass outcry for Soviet Jewry in North America. In 1972 he helped form the Canadian Academi« Committee for Soviet Jewry. But it was not until his involvement with the Shcharansky case that Cotier began to take an active enough part to please his own conscience.

He saw Avital Shcharansky in Jerusalem in 1977, a few months after Anatoly’s arrest. (He also met his wife at that time.) Avital asked him to do what

he could to foster support in Canada; he said he would. He saw her again in November, in Montreal. After some impassioned “cocktail party exchanges” at a dinner with several lawyers, Avital and Cotier talked for a very long time. They decided she would give him power of attorney (at no charge) and launch a bona fide legal appeal to the Soviets. Meet them on their own terms.

“The Soviets are very proud of their justice system,” says Cotier, “as well they should be. Their constitution and criminal code is a veritable model for human rights. In 99 per cent of the cases it functions very well. But in cases like Shcharansky’s, in political cases, the face of Gulag justice is revealed. We set out to compile a document that would not only be a testimonial to Shcharansky’s innocence, but the innocence of all those who have associated themselves with the Jewish emigration movement; a document that would stand the test of time for the whole human rights expression in the U.S.S.R.”

Avital Shcharansky returned to Israel to gather documents and take testimony from people who had left the Soviet Union. Ariela, who was in Washington participating in a program for foreign parliamentarians, came to Montreal and became Cotier’s full-time researcher. Cotier’s avocation and vocation were finally wed—his passion for human rights and his skill with the law would free Anatoly Shcharansky.

Irwin Cotier was born in Montreal on May 8, 1940. As a child, his father taught him the Talmud, the ancient Jewish civil and religious law. At Talmud Torah elementary school and Herzliah high school he received all his secular education from poet Irving Layton. “Layton taught me a philosophy of life that juxtaposed well with the Talmudic learning I got from my father,” Cotier says. “And my father was a great admirer of A.M. Klein and Frank Scott, who were both lawyers. It was always a nice thing for me to think that poets could be lawyers, or perhaps more importantly, that lawyers could be poets.”

After graduating from McGill law school, Cotier did graduate work in international law at Yale University. There he received what he calls the “socializing influence” of such U.S. scholar-lawyers as Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo and Felix Frankfurter—that “there is no dichotomy between law and life, that lawyering is an expression of a philosophy of life, not merely a job of plumbing.”

The document Cotier compiled during the spring and summer of last year is not only a testimonial to the innocence

of Anatoly Shcharansky and the human rights movement in the Soviet Union, it is a testimonial to the dedication of the principles of Irwin Cotier. Titled “The Shcharansky Case,” running to 900 pages of argument and documentation, it forthrightly makes the points that Shcharansky could be anyone caught in the grasp of totalitarianism; that Shcharansky’s first and only crime was that he wanted to emigrate to Israel to be with his wife; that all subsequent “crimes” were his protests against the denial of that very human need.

But it goes much further. It cites Soviet law in illustrating that pre-arrest harassment and surveillance of Shcharansky were illegal; that he was convicted through the media, in the party newspaper Izvestia and a TV documentary called Traders in Souls that called him “an enemy of the motherland”; that the arrest itself was carried out illegally by the KGB, without a warrant or court action; that he was detained

in prison, in communicado, without trial, for more than the ninemonth limit prescribed by Soviet law; that he was denied the right to counsel, his chosen lawyer being exiled from the Soviet Union and replaced by a court-appointed and KGB-approved lawyer; that witnesses were intimidated and coerced into giving testimony. Every argument was supported by documentation. “Each and every point—and there are about 20 key points—is cause, under Soviet law, for quashing the indictment and setting aside the judgment,” Cotier says.

He tried to communicate his evidence to Shcharansky’s court-appointed lawyer. He got no response. He asked for permission to enter the U.S.S.R. to consult with his client. He acknowledged that he had no standing in a Soviet court and asked merely to act in an advisory role. But his registered letters and telegrams and phone calls went unanswered.

Anatoly Shcharansky was convicted last July 14 in a three-storey stone courthouse on a Moscow side street. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison for high treason and anti-Soviet agitation.

Last August, Cotier and Avital Shcharansky met with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and gave him a copy of their legal appeal. “I think,” says Cotier, “that the prime minister appreciated that this was not an attempt to impose our cultural values on the Soviets, that we were working within the framework of Soviet law.” Trudeau was apparently so impressed, in fact, that he had the document transmitted to Moscow and copies sent to Soviet legal authorities and Shcharansky’s family.

Though the document has become something of an “underground bestseller” in the U.S.S.R. and has served as an inspiration to the human rights movement and the Shcharansky family, Cotier has received no response from Soviet legal authorities. Nor did he really expect to.

Has it all been worth it? Does Cotier believe his labors will finally make a difference? In fact, that’s not what matters to him. “As Edmund Burke said, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for enough good men to do nothing.’ And that links up with what for me has always been a philosophy of life and goes right back to my roots, and that’s the Talmudic expression of the sage Hillel: ‘If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? If I am but for myself, what am I? And if not now— whenV ”