Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 221

The legal war which Russian security forces have waged in recent years against domestic nuclear researchers and others accused of espionage took an ominous turn last week when the Russian Supreme Court ordered a new trial for a Russian officer who had earlier been acquitted of treason charges. Grigory Pasko, a military journalist who had investigated the handling of nuclear wastes by Russia’s Pacific Fleet, had been accused by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) of passing classified information to Japanese media. Pasko was subjected to a long stay in prison while his case was investigated. That experience damaged his health and led human rights groups around the world–including Amnesty International–to champion his cause. His acquittal by a Vladivostok court of treason and espionage charges in June of last year was hailed by those same groups as a belated but nevertheless important victory for human rights in Russia. Indeed, both Pasko’s triumph and a similar court victory earned by another, better-known Russian officer accused of treason–Aleksandr Nikitin–appeared to mark a milepost in the painful and still uncertain emergence of an independent judiciary in Russia.

Last week’s Supreme Court decision, however, which its Military Collegium rendered, demonstrated anew just how uncertain the judiciary’s independence really is in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Although he had been acquitted of the treason charges, Pasko had chosen last year to appeal his conviction on a lesser charge of having abused his officer’s status. Prosecutors in the case had likewise appealed the Vladivostok court’s ruling. Those attending last week’s Supreme Court hearing were reportedly expecting to see Pasko win a full exoneration of all charges, and were said to have been shocked by the court’s unfavorable decision. There were also complaints that the court’s panel of three military judges had chosen to close the hearings to the public, and had refused even to allow admission for two Russian lawmakers–Sergei Kovalev and Sergei Yushenkov–who had planned to attend the hearing in a show of support for the 38-year-old journalist (AP, November 21; Washington Post, November 23; Moscow News, Segodnya, November 22).

Pasko’s reversal of fortunes is particularly ominous insofar as it comes amid two other espionage trials which the Russian FSB are now pushing: those of American businessman Edmond Pope and former Russian diplomat Valentin Moiseev. As in both Pasko’s and Nikitin’s first trials, the prosecution in each of the newer cases appears to have based its charges on flimsy evidence and, equally important, to be relying on the compliance of the presiding judge. In both the Pope and Moiseev cases (which, appropriately enough, are being conducted in chambers only two floors apart at the Moscow City Court), the presiding judges have reportedly rejected numerous motions by the respective defense attorneys on behalf of their clients. They have also maintained a wall of secrecy which has made it difficult for those accused even to learn in full detail the particular charges being leveled against them.

For Americans who have observed the trial of Edmond Pope, none of this is news. The U.S. businessman and formal naval intelligence officer was arrested this past spring on charges of trying to obtain classified information about the Russian “shkval” torpedo. Over the past few weeks he has won some seeming victories, but suffered some reversals as well, in a trial which could ultimately bring him a twenty-year prison sentence. One of those small victories came yesterday, when the Moscow Court agreed to accept as evidence a document issued by the Bauman Technical Institute which authorized the handover to Pope of a report containing plans for the high-speed Russian torpedo. Pope is accused of acquiring the document illegally. Over the past several weeks Pope has also had several experts testify that the information he acquired about the Shkval was, as he has consistently claimed, unclassified and not a threat to Russian national security. In addition, a judge threw out a US$250 million damages suit related to the alleged threat of Shkval technology which the Russian navy lodged against Pope. On the negative side of the ledger, however, an expert commission has reportedly testified that the data Pope acquired was secret. In addition, the defense team failed to oust the lead prosecutor in the case–Oleg Plotnikov–on conflict of interest allegations. Last week, however, after he was reportedly taken ill and rushed to a hospital, Plotnikov was mysteriously replaced (AP, November 27; Reuters, November 16, 20, 22, 24; Washington Post, November 23; Moscow Times, November 16).

The trial of Valentin Moiseev, meanwhile, is drawing little attention and is thought unlikely to end in his favor. Moiseev is a former senior Foreign Ministry official who oversaw Russian relations with the two Koreas. He was arrested in 1998 for allegedly handing secret information over to South Korea (an incident which triggered a major diplomatic row between the two countries), and in 1999 was sentenced to twelve years in jail. Earlier this year, though, that conviction was thrown out by Russia’s Supreme Court, which ruled that prosecutors had been too vague in formulating their charges. Russian reports suggest that Moiseev’s second trial is nevertheless proceeding in much the same way that his first did–with the presiding judge rejecting defense motions and refusing to fully divulge the charges against him. Prosecutors are demanding a twelve-year jail sentence for Moiseev (AFP, November 14; Moscow Times, November 17).

The Pasko, Pope and Moiseev trials appear to reflect anew the vagaries of a Russian legal system which does little to protect the rights of individuals unlucky enough to run afoul of Russia’s ever more powerful security agencies. As a Russian commentary observed last month, the Russian criminal code gives broad definitions to the terms espionage and state secrets–definitions which leave considerable room for abuse and misunderstanding. In addition, the FSB is said to violate constitutional provisions making it illegal to base charges on secret documents. And that, according to one U.S. human rights advocate, makes it easier both to accuse people of violating rules about which they have no way of knowing and to make anyone a potential target of an espionage investigation (Moscow News, October 25).

This cavalier attitude toward individual rights has probably been strengthened by Putin’s accession to the Russian presidency. Putin is a former intelligence officer whose rise to power has been accompanied by a broader strengthening of the security agencies in Russia. Numerous Russian commentators, moreover, have noted remarks that he made while serving as head of the FSB. In them, Putin accused Russian environmental organizations and charities of sometimes serving as covers for spies. He also appeared to finger Moiseev directly, suggesting that the diplomat was guilty regardless of possible inconsistencies in the evidence against him (Moscow News, October 25; November 17).