Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 17

The case of Grigory Pasko, the muckraking Russian military journalist who was unexpectedly sentenced to four years in prison on treason charges this past December, has continued to generate controversy in Russia, and could be emerging as a minor political headache for President Vladimir Putin. That assessment comes as protests over his imprisonment continue in Russia, and in some foreign capitals as well, where concerns over the Kremlin’s human rights record have again become a foreign policy issue. Pasko, meanwhile, has raised the stakes in his standoff with Russian authorities by announcing his intention to forego any pardon that Putin might offer. If Pasko follows through on that pledge, Putin might be deprived of what the Kremlin probably sees as the best way out of the current imbroglio: the proffering of a presidential pardon that makes the Kremlin appear magnanimous while exonerating Russia’s Federal Security Service. Human rights groups, sharply criticizing the FSB investigation into Pasko’s actions, charge that the case against him is full of holes and a sad commentary on Russia’s judicial system. Pasko’s accepting a presidential pardon, however, would constitute a tacit admission on his part that he is indeed guilty of the treason charges leveled against him.

The rumble of dissatisfaction over the Pasko case began building late last month, after a Russian Pacific Fleet court in Vladivostok sentenced Pasko to four years of hard labor for intending to pass military secrets to a Japanese media organization. The decision was a surprising one in several respects, not least because it partially reversed an acquittal that Pasko had won on the treason charges back in July 1999. The decision was all the more suspect because Pasko was convicted not for passing these secrets to the Japanese, but for allegedly intending to hand over the information. The court decision outraged human rights groups, who had expected a complete exoneration for the Russian captain, and sent Pasko back to prison while his appeal of the case was under consideration. Pasko had already spent some twenty months in prison before his first trial, an ordeal that, given the abject state of the Russian prison system, undermined his health. It also renewed suspicions that the FSB was using the investigation against Pasko, just as it had used investigations against other nuclear whistleblowers, such as Aleksandr Nikitin, primarily as a means of intimidating those who sought to focus attention on some of the shoddy practices of Russia’s armed forces (see the Monitor, January 2, 15).

The Pasko case had already caused some tension in relations between Russia and the United States on January 14, when the Russian Foreign Ministry protested the attendance by two U.S. diplomats of a protest organized earlier in Vladivostok on behalf of Pasko. The issue came up a day later when, during a brief Putin visit to Paris, French President Jacques Chirac raised concerns over the Pasko case. In addition, about thirty members of the organization Reporters Without Borders held a protest at the windows of the Russia’s Aeroflot airline in which they demanded that Pasko be set free. Against this background, reports out of Paris indicated that Putin had made it clear to Chirac that he was willing to consider a pardon for Pasko if the case is brought before him.

But if Putin was trying to appear magnanimous in offering the pardon, other of his comments suggested that the Kremlin’s attitude toward the case is actually a good deal more cavalier. This is because the Russian president was also quoted in Paris as making the erroneous and misleading statement that Pasko had been proven indisputably to have passed secret documents to foreigners for money. The Vladivostok court, however, had reached no such finding. Putin’s statement led an analyst with the Norwegian environmental group Bellona to charge that Putin had either lied in a deliberate attempt to smear Pasko, or that the president’s advisers were misleading him as to the nature of the case against the Russian journalist.

Pasko, meanwhile, made it clear through his lawyer that he has no intention of accepting a presidential pardon, though he did offer gracious thanks to both Putin and Russian Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov–who has emerged as an unlikely backer of Pasko–“for their support and encouraging words.” The statement released by Pasko through his lawyer, Anatoly Pyshkin, also said that “to ask pardon would mean to admit guilt … but I am not guilty and will continue the struggle for my honest name and full acquittal.”

If Pasko is unwilling to request a presidential pardon, however, the possibility is still open–according to his lawyer–that he might nevertheless agree to a pardon Putin might grant at the behest of Russian social organizations. This new possibility seems designed to further energize those groups that have lined up behind Pasko’s cause, and perhaps also to increase the political pressure on the Kremlin to begin reining in the Federal Security Service. That Putin might not look favorably upon such a turn of events was suggested in a commentary posted on the Kremlin-connected website. It said that Russian law stipulated that a presidential pardon could come only at the request of the individual involved, and suggested that it would therefore make little sense for Russian social organizations to make such an appeal.

But the biggest consideration driving Pasko’s actions at the moment appears to be his hope that the Military Collegium of the Russian Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear his appeal, will reverse the conviction and give him the full exoneration that he is so unequivocally seeking. That will not happen immediately, however. The court will reportedly not hear the case until April or May of this year, which means at least several more months of imprisonment. But if Russian reports are to be believed, the increasing attention being focused on Pasko’s case has brought the Russian captain at least one immediate benefit. As is apparently common in Russian prisons, the window in Pasko’s jail cell had reportedly lacked a window pane, and was therefore open to the frigid winter air. Glass has recently been installed in the window, however, and reports say that the temperature in the cell is now more livable. That should help Pasko make it to the spring, when he undoubtedly hopes that the heat which he and his supporters have put upon the Kremlin will result in a full acquittal by Russia’s highest court (DPA, January 15;, January 16, 22; AP, Reuters, AFP, January 16;, January 16, 18, 22; ORT, January 22).