Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 171

The long, determined and often ugly effort by Russian security authorities to hang a treason charge on a retired Russian Navy captain came to a happy end this week when the Russian Supreme Court threw out a bid by prosecutors to reopen the espionage case against Aleksandr Nikitin. The decision, which was reached by the court’s presidium on September 13, is final. It was immediately hailed by human rights groups in Russia and abroad not only as an exoneration for Nikitin, but also as an important indication of the independence of the Russian judiciary. Indeed, some observers described Nikitin’s acquittal as history-making insofar as it marked the first time that a Russian court had defied the country’s security organs by dismissing charges against a citizen accused of treason. The 46-year-old Nikitin, whose cause had been embraced by such human rights groups as Amnesty International and whose case had drawn international attention, was first arrested in 1996 on charges of having passed classified information. The accusation involved a study prepared by Nikitin for the Norwegian environmental group Bellona, which outlined the environmental dangers posed by the Russian Northern Fleet’s handling of its nuclear wastes. Nikitin, his legal team and his supporters denied the charges, arguing both that the information he provided for the report was drawn from nonclassified sources and that it was not subject to Russian secrecy laws in any event because it involved questions of environmental security. After a five-year ordeal which included a long prison term and countless trials, Nikitin was finally acquitted by a St. Petersburg court last December.

The Supreme Court upheld that ruling this past April. But, in an unexpected turn that some observers say suggests an effort by the security organs to manipulate the judiciary, the Prosecutor General’s office in late May made an unprecedented appeal for a reversal to the court’s presidium. The prosecutor’s appeal was even more unusual for what it argued: namely, that the case against Nikitin should be reopened because Russian authorities had violated the rights of the retired navy captain during their investigation into the charges against him. On August 2 the eleven-member presidium decided to postpone a ruling on the matter until September 13. That set the stage for this week’s final acquittal (Reuters, AP,, BBC, September 13).

Among the explanations offered for the prosecution’s unusual appeal to the presidium, the most plausible suggests that it was launched in an effort to “save face” for those who originally decided to prosecute Nikitin. According to this view, the Prosecutor General’s office was embarrassed by the fact that the case against Nikitin had been so weak, and hoped to use this latest appeal in order to hang some sort of lesser sentence on the nuclear researcher. Observers have also pointed in this regard to the possible role played by Viktor Cherkesov, a former KGB agent and Soviet-era dissident hunter who was recently named governor of the Northwest region of Russia by his long-time associate–President Vladimir Putin. Cherkesov is believed to have had a hand in launching the case against Nikitin and to have been outraged when Nikitin was acquitted by the St. Petersburg court (see the Monitor, August 3).

It is also worth noting that Putin himself may have had more than a passing interest in the Nikitin case. He was head of the Federal Security Service–the KGB successor organization which has investigated Nikitin–for a portion of the time during which the case against Nikitin was pursued. He is also on record as having declared Nikitin guilty and as having charged that ecological groups are providing cover for foreign spies (AP, UPI, September 13).

The final acquittal of Nikitin and the virtual acquittal last year of another similarly charged nuclear whistleblower, Grigory Pasko, are clearly a victory for human rights in Russia and an encouraging sign that the country’s judiciary may be willing to stand up to the security services. Yet it would be a mistake to ignore or minimize the extent to which the FSB may nevertheless have achieved at least one of its primary goals in the Nikitin and Pasko cases. That is, the agency managed effectively to use trumped-up charges in order to subject the victims to long and harrowing ordeals. In that regard, these cases appeared to be aimed not only at convicting the individuals involved, but also at using intimidation to chill contacts more broadly between Russian security experts and their counterparts in the West. The failure of the Russian court system to ensure that these cases were prosecuted in a more rapid and humane fashion suggests that the Russian judiciary still has some miles to travel if it is to battle effectively against Russia’s increasingly influential security organs.

Against this background, it is worth looking at several other as-yet-unresolved cases which may bear parallels to the Nikitin and Pasko cases. One is that of the U.S. businessman Edmond Pope, who had cultivated numerous ties with Russian defense specialists as part of his business dealings and has been in Lefortovo prison since April on espionage charges (see the Monitor, September 12).

Another is that of Valentin Moiseev, a former deputy chief of the First Asian Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry. He was arrested in July of 1998 on allegations that he had passed classified information to a South Korean diplomat. After some two years in jail, Moiseev finally saw his conviction overturned by the Russian Supreme Court this past July. As was the case with Nikitin and Pasko, there have been allegations that the FSB used trumped-up charges to build the case and win the original conviction against Moiseev. However, a Moscow municipal court refused earlier this month to release Moiseev from prison while his case is reconsidered. That denial reportedly came despite appeals from Russian Foreign Ministry officials, as well as from Duma deputies and activities from the Moscow Helsinki Group (Kommersant, September 6; see the Monitor, July 27). It is not clear when his appeal will finally come to court.

Finally, there is the case of Igor Sutyagin, a well-known defense analyst with the prestigious USA and Canada Institute. Sutyagin was arrested on treason charges last October and charged with high treason for, according to some reports, allegedly passing classified information to a foreign state. Sutyagin, however, reportedly had no access to classified information in his work at the USA and Canada Institute. But that seems not to have stopped the FSB. According to a newspaper account published earlier this month, the FSB admits that Sutyagin’s case is not an ordinary one and suggests that it is based on a novel concept: namely, that foreign intelligence services are using a new tactic at present, one which seeks to recruit not Russians responsible for keeping state secrets, but individuals who may have access to some. Meanwhile, as prosecutors continue their investigations based on this dubious assumption, Sutyagin remains incarcerated in a jail in the Russian city of Kaluga. Conditions are said to be harsh, a circumstance which this past summer prompted the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights to draft a letter demanding that he be granted immediate freedom (Vremya novostei, September 6; see the Monitor, July 7).