Russian ambassador defends use of diplomatic immunity

Russia's ambassador to Canada assured Canadians that a diplomat accused of killing a woman in Ottawa while driving drunk will face full prosecution in Russia.

At a news conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, Vitaly Churkin said he is "profoundly shocked and extremely upset" by the incident. But he also said his country has every right to use diplomatic immunity.

Catherine MacLean, a prominent Ottawa lawyer, was walking her dog with a friend on the weekend when a car drove onto the sidewalk and plowed into them. MacLean was killed. Her friend was seriously injured.

Police at the scene said the suspect was so impaired he could barely walk or speak.

Andrey Knyazev was charged with criminal negligence causing death, impaired driving, failing to provide a breath sample, and criminal negligence causing bodily harm.

Knyazev immediately claimed diplomatic immunity and on Monday, Russia denied Canada's request to lift it.

Churkin urged Canadians not to judge all Russians on the actions of one man. But he defended his government's right to recall Knyazev, saying it's tradition and common practice in the diplomatic community.

"Many people are not happy that we didn't lift the diplomatic immunity," Churkin said. "The Canadian government has expressed its displeasure but recognized that this is our right."

Churkin said he can't recall a case where a foreign diplomat has ever been tried in Russia.

He also assured Canadians that Knyazev will face criminal proceedings in Russia and could face up to five years in prison. He added that given the difference between Canadian and Russian prisons, being in Russia may not be an advantage.

Still, the tragedy has raised questions about the use of diplomatic immunity to escape prosecution.

But Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley says he will not use this case to press for changes.

"There's an old saying among lawyers that hard cases make bad law," Manley said following a cabinet meeting Tuesday.

"I think that (revising diplomatic rules) is something that we'd want to look at in a broader circumstance, not in the situation which we're in now," he said.

On Monday night mourners held a vigil in MacLean's memory, leaving flowers and candles in front of her house. Some called for changes to the immunity laws.

"It seems incredible to me that diplomats can come to another country and behave essentially with complete immunity from the most horrendous conduct," Janice Payne, a friend of MacLean's told CBC Newsworld.

The husband of the woman seriously injured in the crash, Philippe Dore said, "To find out that he was someone who was able to claim and did indeed claim immunity adds an extra degree of insult to injury."

Two diplomats recalled

Knyazev was one of two Russian diplomats recalled Monday after being accused of drunk driving over the weekend. There were no injuries in the second incident.

Canada's Chief of Protocol Richard Kohler says Ottawa only has the "moral power of persuasion" to convince Russia that the men should be tried in Canada. But he said Russian law is similar to Canada's when it comes to drunk driving.

Under the Vienna Convention, diplomats and their family members can be charged with crimes but are immune from criminal prosecution and civil liability. In some cases, they can be expelled from the country where they're posted.