By Anna Badkhen
Aleksandr Nikitin was a nuclear reactor engineer at the Soviet Navy’s Northern Fleet when the news of the Chornobyl catastrophe shook the world–and determined his future. Nikitin decided to commit to nuclear safety. Nikitin’s commitment has brought him international awards and worldwide appreciation. It has also cost him more than ten months of incarceration, nearly four years of city arrest, surveillance and harassment by the KGB successor agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB). It may cost him up to twenty years in jail if he is found guilty in what international observers call “a test of due process in Russia.” This month, the FSB charged Nikitin with espionage for the ninth time, for speaking out on the risk of environmental disaster which is growing in Russia’s Northern Fleet.
After he retired from the nuclear safety department of Russia’s Defense Ministry in 1992 as a first rank captain, Nikitin joined the Norwegian-based environmental group Bellona in its work on a report which warned of a nuclear catastrophe hazard at Russian Navy sites on the Kola Peninsula, in northwest Russia. Entitled “The Northern Fleet. Sources of Radioactive Contamination,” the report described in detail how 18 percent of the world’s nuclear reactors, both active and inactive, were handled. At the time the report was written, the fifty-two decommissioned nuclear submarines harbored on the peninsula–many with nuclear reactors still on board–were barely guarded and ready to sink; the nuclear waste storage facilities were overburdened and leaking and the radioactive water used to cool off nuclear reactors was simply dumped overboard. The chapter written by Nikitin described nuclear accidents involving the Northern Fleet’s submarines that killed dozens and injured hundreds of people, and littered the floor of the Arctic Ocean with nuclear reactors. Today, according to Bellona’s statistics, the potential risk of radioactive contamination by the waste accumulated on the Kola Peninsula exceeds the contamination caused by the Hiroshima explosion by 5,000 times.
The Bellona report was written specifically to be presented at the 1996 G-7 nuclear safety summit in Moscow, to attract Western financing for the cleanup of the Northern Fleet’s nuclear waste. Although it was eventually distributed among the summit participants and is freely available on the Internet (https://www.bellona.no), the Bellona report was banned by the FSB as soon as it was published–the first book to be banned in post-Soviet Russia. For his efforts, Nikitin was accused of divulging state secrets.
At 7:00 a.m. on February 6, 1996 there was a knock on Nikitin’s apartment door. Two FSB officers told Nikitin that they were taking him for urgent questioning at the city FSB headquarters, promising that it would only take a few hours. He returned home ten months and eight days later.
That morning changed his life forever, Nikitin says. When he arrived at the FSB headquarters, the investigators told him that he had been arrested on suspicion of treason and espionage–though the first round of formal charges against him was only launched in September 1996. Nikitin said that he was served the arrest warrant in presence of a strange man who, the investigators said, was his defense lawyer. “I have never seen that man before or since,” Nikitin says.
Nikitin was thrown in a solitary cell of the FSB remand prison and was not allowed to meet with his wife for three weeks following the arrest. Likewise, he was denied the right to be defended by the lawyer of his own choice–the famous human rights attorney Yuri Schmidt–on the grounds that Schmidt did not have FSB-cleared “access to state secrets.” Only on March 27, 1996 did the Constitutional Court rule that Nikitin had the right to choose his own attorney. While he was in jail, Nikitin was named a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International–the first Russian to be so named after Soviet dissident and Noble Prize-winning physicist Andrei Sakharov.
On December 11, 1996, Deputy Prosecutor General Mikhail Katyshev, who was assigned to review the case, ordered that Nikitin be freed and the treason charges against him dropped. “One must acknowledge one’s mistakes. I am setting Nikitin free,” Schmidt recalls Katyshev as saying. However, the FSB ignored the order and tried to backtrack the case to court, and only on December 14, 1996, after a special order from the then-Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov, did they release Nikitin, in exchange for a promise that he would not leave St. Petersburg without special permission from the FSB.
Nikitin, however, has generally been denied such permission. In 1997, for example, he was denied permission to attend a reception at the U.S. White House, during which he was awarded the Goldman Prize–a California-based award internationally considered the environmental equivalent of the Noble Prize, and one of the seven awards Nikitin has received during the last three years. Two months ago, he was denied a trip to Moscow to meet with Deputy Prosecutor General Aleksandr Rozanov, who is now reviewing his case. In June, the St. Petersburg City Court rejected his motion to lift these travel restrictions on the grounds of “Nikitin’s personality”–a vague explanation which prompted Nikitin to express his concerns about the court’s bias. “In my military files, there is nothing about my personality but certificates of honorary mention,” Nikitin says. “So when they say ‘Nikitin’s personality,’ they mean ‘Nikitin’s reluctance to cooperate with the FSB.'”
Nikitin says being under city arrest implies more than just travel restrictions–it also means that the FSB can always easily harass him. According to the indictment served to Nikitin last summer, his home was wired even before the case against him was officially filed in September 1995. Since then, Nikitin says, the FSB has wired his office and, most likely, his car. According to Nikitin, last spring the FSB attacked one of his defense lawyers, stalked him and his wife and daughter, repeatedly slashed his car tires and poured glue into his car locks. “They hoped that I would break down under the pressure of being constantly physically followed and then hit the road,” Nikitin recalls. “Then they would say, ‘See? He wanted to escape, that means he is a spy.’ To be honest, sometimes I wanted to run away. The only thing that stopped me was that I was right and I had to prove it.”
Since the first espionage charges were brought against Nikitin in 1996, four investigative FSB teams have worked on the case and charged him eight more times, breaking the record for the number of charges brought against a Russian citizen for one alleged crime. While Nikitin colloquially calls these charges “Dante’s circles of hell,” his lawyer Schmidt has a more down-to-earth definition of the case–“multiple violations of Russian and international law.”
While the FSB alleges that Nikitin divulged state secrets, the environmentalist and his supporters contend that the information he had contributed to the Bellona report has been public knowledge for years. According to Thomas Nilsen, a co-author of the report from Oslo, Norway, “these open sources were presented to the FSB but the FSB did not want to look into it.” In 1996, experts of Russia’s Nuclear Ministry concluded that the data submitted by Nikitin for the report had been previously published in open literature. Their conclusion was ignored by the FSB. The charges against Nikitin also violate articles 41 and 42 of the Russian constitution, Schmidt says. According to Article 41, it is a crime for officials to conceal “facts and circumstances that create a threat to people’s lives and health.” Article 42 stipulates that every person has a right to a “decent environment [and] reliable information about the environment.”
Moreover, Schmidt says that the charges against Nikitin are unconstitutionally based on presidential decrees, on the amendment to the Law on State Secrets which came into force months and even years after Nikitin committed the alleged crime and on a Defense Ministry decree so secret that the FSB only produced it to Nikitin and his lawyers when it was forced to do so by court last fall. According to Russian legislation, it is illegal to base charges on secret and retroactive decrees. Although the St. Petersburg City Court (October 1998), followed by the Russian Supreme Court (on February 4 of this year), ruled that the FSB must further investigate the case and base the new charges on legitimately applied decrees, Nikitin says that the new round of charges, presented July 2, is as illegally based as was the eighth round.
Meanwhile, according to Aleksandr Kolb, the latest in a string of FSB investigators, the new charges “naturally” satisfy the court orders and are legally based. As Kolb put it in an interview last month, “We always base everything on law.”
“The FSB don’t want to concede that the constitution exists. They don’t care what the Supreme Court says,” Schmidt says, calling the Russian security service “a state within a state.” Schmidt says the ninth round of charges differs from the eighth only by the amount of damage it accuses Nikitin of causing Russia. The cost of Russian state secrets plummeted in just one year from $800,000, which was the estimate in the eighth round of charges, to $20,000, the estimate in the new set of charges. The newly estimated damage is “simply ridiculous,” Schmidt says, adding that if the costs of the four-year campaign against Nikitin were calculated, they “would be many times higher” than the damage Nikitin is alleged to have caused. Meanwhile, the Bellona report helped Russia draw at least US$556 million in U.S. and European funds to diminish the threat of nuclear contamination by the Northern Fleet, said Nilsen of Bellona. Nilsen said the report could potentially have helped attract even more money, had it not been for the Nikitin case. “As long as the Nikitin case continues, many politicians say [that] Russia cannot expect full cooperation on nuclear safety until they follow their own rule of law,” Nilsen said in a telephone interview from Oslo, Norway. According to Schmidt, “the FSB investigators don’t understand that with this set of charges, they are holding Russia up to the scorn of the entire world.”
The international community most recently expressed its opinion of the Nikitin case in a resolution passed at the 8th Parliamentary Assembly Session of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe last week (July 9). The OSCE resolution called Nikitin a “victim of unjustified proceedings based on secret and retroactive legislation,” and the chairman of the U.S. delegation to the assembly convention, Representative Christopher Smith, called the case “a test of due process in Russia.” “Aleksandr Nikitin has done a great service to Russia and to humanity. Instead of punishing, harassing and possibly incarcerating this man, they should be giving him accolades and awards,” Congressman Smith said. Today, Nikitin and his defense team brace themselves for a trial they hope will take place in the fall, and Nikitin says he and the defense are getting ready for a “furious fight.” “The fight will no longer be about truth or law,” Nikitin said recently. “It will be about getting the case finished.”
Earlier this year, the Russian Constitutional Court practically banned the court practice of returning cases for additional investigation, and Nikitin says he hopes that the upcoming court hearings will be final. Schmidt, however, says Nikitin must be ready for a new round of investigation. “The FSB will do its best to pressure the court. It is impossible to convict Nikitin, but I am not sure that there is a judge at the [St. Petersburg] City Court who has enough courage to pass an acquittal in this case,” Schmidt said last week.
Boris Pustintsev, chairman of the St. Petersburg-based Citizens’ Watch advocacy group and a long-time supporter of Nikitin, says that the FSB “needs the court to convict Nikitin for at least three days.”
“Because if the court acquits [Nikitin], it will turn out that a group of loafers for almost four years have been wasting taxpayers’ money and–as the West doled out millions of dollars to clean up the nuclear mess [of the Northern Fleet]–damaging the country’s prestige,” Pustintsev said. “And then, it is possible that heads will fly.”
Anna Badkhen is a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times.