Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 58

An unhappy chapter in relations between Russia and Canada was brought to an apparently satisfactory close this week when a Moscow court sentenced a former Russian diplomat to four years in prison for his role in a deadly accident in January of last year in Ottawa. Andrei Knyazev was serving as first secretary of the Russian embassy in Ottawa when a car he was operating jumped a curb and ran down two Canadian women as they were walking a dog in a quiet Ottawa residential area. One of the women, Catherine MacLean, was killed immediately, and the other, her friend Catherine Dore, sustained serious injuries in the accident. Police on the scene reported that Knyazev appeared heavily drunk, but the forty-six-year-old Russian diplomat refused to take a breathalyzer test and invoked his right to diplomatic immunity from prosecution.

The case outraged Canada, particularly when it was revealed that Knyazev had been stopped on two previous occasions for driving while intoxicated, but that police had been unable to pursue charges against him. Tensions between Moscow and Ottawa grew when the Russian government refused a Canadian request that Knyazev be stripped of his diplomatic immunity so that he could be tried in Canada. Instead, Knyazev was hustled back to Moscow, where some Russian sources speculated that the senior diplomat might escape with little more than a slap on the wrist. The fact that Knyazev was dismissed almost immediately from the Russian foreign service suggested that authorities there were taking the diplomat’s transgressions seriously, however.

Indeed, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin and other Russian officials had pledged that Knyazev would be made to answer for his actions. This week’s verdict appears to have satisfied the Canadian government on that count. In investigating and prosecuting Knyazev, officials from Canada and Russia engaged in what the Globe and Mail called an “impressive show of cooperation.” The two countries also went so far as to sign a treaty allowing evidence and testimony from one country to be used in the courts of the other. In the end, Russian prosecutors charged Knyazev with involuntary manslaughter under a section of the Russian criminal code that deals with injury inflicted while in violation of traffic rules, and demanded the maximum sentence allowed under the law: a five year sentence at a maximum security prison.

Instead, Knyazev received a sentence that, according to press accounts, was probably not radically different from what he would have faced in a Canadian court–four years’ imprisonment at a lower security facility (and a subsequent loss of driving privileges for three years). Knyazev will reportedly be sent to a “village colony,” possibly one that is not too far from Moscow, where he will be obliged to perform light labor and will live in a guarded dormitory. Life in the village system, which was set up to separate those judged to have committed involuntary crimes from hardened criminals, will be no picnic, but will nevertheless be far easier for Knyazev than would a sentence in Russia’s notorious regular prison system. Indeed, Knyazev likely faces far worse–and more dangerous–conditions in the Moscow detention center where he is now being held. According to a Canadian expert, the former Russian diplomat will likely be held there for six to eight weeks while waiting for his appeal to be heard.

According to Knyazev’s lawyer, that appeal is directed not at reversing the guilty verdict leveled against Knyazev, but at shortening the prison sentence he faces. As things now stand, Knyazev would reportedly be eligible for release on good behavior in two years. But at least some in Moscow’s legal community warned this week that because this is his first conviction, and given his stature as a diplomat, he could be freed in as little as six months time. Such a move would seem to make little sense, however, given not only the seriousness of Knyazev’s crime, but also the likelihood that such an early release could be expected to undo much of the good will generated between Russia and Canada as a result of Moscow’s faithful prosecution of Knyazev (AP, BBC,, March 19; Globe and Mail, March 16, 20; Ottawa Citizen, March 20).