Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 194

More than two-and-a-half years after he was first arrested, a retired naval officer turned environmentalist went on trial for high treason yesterday in St. Petersburg. Aleksandr Nikitin–who once commanded a nuclear-powered submarine–has been accused of divulging state secrets in the work he did in preparing a report on nuclear pollution in the Northern Fleet for the Norwegian environmental organization Bellona. His case has attracted considerable international attention. He has even received a prestigious international environmental award.

Yesterday’s proceedings were open for a brief while, then closed by the presiding judge. Nikitin and his lawyers have claimed that all the data he used was already in the public domain. The Defense Ministry regulations on which the case is based have been so secret that they could not be shown to Nikitin or his lawyer, Yuri Schmidt. Schmidt indicated yesterday that this document would come to light as the trial continues. While high treason does carry the death penalty, the prosecution in this case is demanding a sentence of only twelve to twenty years in prison (Russian media, October 20).

This trial has all the hallmarks of an attempt to kill the messenger rather than deal with the message. Environmentalists throughout the region warn that the pollution from military nuclear waste associated with the scores of rusting, decommissioned submarines has long been a catastrophe waiting to happen. Because the military has not had the money to do anything about the situation, the problem was recently turned over to the Atomic Energy Ministry, an organization itself with little money and facing equally daunting environmental problems elsewhere (Russian media, October 9).

Nikitin is not the only environmental whistleblower in trouble. In Vladivostok, Russian Navy Commander Grigory Pasko has been accused of spying for Japan in connection with reports he filed with Japanese television and newspaper detailing the Pacific Fleet’s illegal dumping of nuclear waste into the Sea of Japan. He was arrested last November. Earlier this month a military court postponed Pasko’s trial. His defense team has hopes that the case will be thrown out. Perhaps the court in Vladivostok is waiting to see what happens to Nikitin (Russian media, October 14).