U.S. Diplomat's Trial Date Set
Sep. 14, 2002
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MOSCOW (AP) _ On a Tuesday night in 1998, 23-year-old part-time student Alexander Kashin flagged down a ride on one of the main streets of Russia's Pacific port of Vladivostok. Shortly after he took his seat, he saw a car coming toward his at right angles, he tensed and lost consciousness.
Kashin awoke in a hospital, paralyzed below the shoulders _ and at the center of diplomatic controversy. The car that hit his was driven by Douglas Kent, the U.S. consul general in Vladivostok at the time.
In the nearly four years since the accident, Kashin and his lawyers have made several attempts to bring court action against Kent. The legal moves were met with citations of diplomatic immunity and motions to dismiss.
The legal maneuverings have angered many Russians, who see Kent and the U.S. government as trying to dodge their legal and moral responsibilities.
But this summer a U.S. federal court denied Kent's latest motion to dismiss a civil suit by Kashin seeking $9 million in damages and on Friday papers were filed in federal district court in Alexandria, Va., to set a trial date.
``I have trust in American courts and believe that I will get a just decision,'' Kashin said in a telephone interview this month from his parents' apartment, which he is rarely able to leave.
That's an outlook not shared by many in his hometown, where his case has received prominent media coverage.
``Why does American diplomacy sabotage the settlement of this ... Friendship with America is strange; it is one-way traffic,'' commented the Vladivostok weekly newspaper Zolotoi Rog.
Critics note that the United States in 1997 put significant pressure on Georgia to lift the diplomatic immunity of Gueorgi Makharadze, a top official at the country's embassy in Washington, to face trial in a fatal drunk-driving accident in the U.S. capital. Makharadze was convicted and served two years in prison in the United States and two more in Georgia.
By contrast, said Kashin's American attorney John Gallagher, the United States has engaged in ``deliberate tactics'' to try to keep Kent out of court.
After Kent avoided criminal trial in Russia and was reassigned to Albania, Kashin's attorneys sought to file civil action in the United States. But the State Department declined to give information on where Kent could be located, Gallagher said.
Investigators eventually found him living under an alias in Arlington, Va., Gallagher said.
Kent did not return messages requesting comment that were left at the State Department and Agnes Liptak of the department's Western Hemisphere Affairs office, to whom calls about Kent were referred, said she could not answer questions about his current status with the department.
A State Department spokeswoman, Nancy Beck, said she could not comment further than to say, ``It is our position that that this is a matter between the parties involved.''
Under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of 1963, diplomatic immunity does not apply to civil actions relating to vehicular accidents. The State Department is not named in the civil suit being pursued in the federal court in Alexandria.
The trial of a diplomat in his home country for an accident while abroad is not unprecedented. In 2001, Russia refused to lift the diplomatic immunity of Andrei Knyazev, a high official at the Russian Embassy in Canada, after a fatal accident in Ottawa, but put him on trial when he returned to Russia and he was sentenced to four years.
Gallagher, comparing these cases with efforts to keep Kent out of court, said, ``I think America is the greatest country in the world, but ... this isn't the United States I know.''
Kashin, meanwhile, hopes that a settlement will provide enough money to get medical care that is unavailable to him in Russia and that he may even be able to leave his parents' apartment unaided.
``I hope that someday medical help will rehabilitate me ... Right now, it doesn't seem possible that I will work,'' he said.