The apparently never-ending effort of Russian authorities to prosecute the well-known nuclear whistleblower Aleksandr Nikitin on treason charges has taken an unexpected and even bizarre turn in recent weeks. On May 30 the Russian Prosecutor General’s office made an apparently unprecedented appeal to the full Presidium of the Russian Supreme Court to overturn an April 19 decision–rendered by no less than the Supreme Court itself–which acquitted the former Navy officer of espionage charges. The appeal was not made known to Nikitin himself until July 19. The move forced Nikitin, who was at that time on a visit to the United States, to scramble back to Russia in order to prepare yet another legal defense. He need not have rushed: Yesterday the eleven-member presidium decided to postpone a ruling on the matter until September 13. The ruling, itself an odd one, leaves Nikitin twisting in the wind for several more months. The 46-year-old nuclear researcher, who first ran afoul of authorities for his authorship of a report detailing the mishandling of nuclear wastes by Russia’s Northern Fleet, has already been subjected to nearly five years of persecution at the hands of Russian authorities. During that time he has faced more than ten trials, has seen Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) conduct several long investigations of his alleged crimes, and has spent ten months in prison.
Nikitin’s travails have drawn the attention of human rights groups around the world–he was declared a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International–and have generated statements of concern by a number of Western governments. For all of these groups, the Nikitin case has been seen as a test of Russia’s post-Soviet judicial system and, more concretely, of its independence and ability to stand up the country’s security agencies. Those defending human rights in Russia celebrated hard-fought victories in December 1999, when a St. Petersburg city court acquitted Nikitin of all espionage charges, and in April of this year, the Russian Supreme Court rejected an appeal lodged by the Prosecutor General’s Office and upheld the acquittal. Russian human rights advocates likewise celebrated last year when Grigory Pasko, another nuclear researcher whose heavy-handed prosecution by FSB investigators had much in common with Nikitin’s, was also exonerated (albeit not fully) of treason charges by a Russian court.
As welcome as those victories were, however, they served as much to underscore the continuing ability of Russia’s security services to hound and intimidate victims of official investigations as they did to demonstrate the development of rule of law in Russia. And these latest events relative to the Nikitin case would seem to be further proof of that sad fact. Nikitin and his legal team were reportedly shocked to learn that yet another appeal was in the works, that the nuclear researcher’s long nightmare might not yet be over. They appear to be even more shocked at the some of the legal arguments being used in the attempt to reopen the case. In a development which can only be described as Kafka-esque, Russian authorities are apparently now trying to argue, for example, that the case against Nikitin should be reopened and another investigation into his alleged crimes launched because authorities had failed to protect the rights of the retired officer during earlier investigations related to the case. “This is so cynical, to set their [prosecutors’] mistakes committed during the investigation as a ground for returning the case for additional investigation,” Yury Schmidt, Nikitin’s lawyer, was quoted as saying earlier this week. Schmidt also observed acidly that the prosecutor in the case, who was responsible for ensuring that no violations were committed during the investigation, had never bothered to discipline the federal agents who had acted improperly.
According to several Russian sources, this latest appeal may represent an effort by those originally involved in prosecuting Nikitin to “save face” by demonstrating that the case was not the embarrassing waste of time that the court decisions in Nikitin’s favor suggested. According to this view, the Prosecutor General’s Office now hopes at the least to successfully charge Nikitin with a lesser crime of some sort. They point as a possible precedent to Pasko’s case, in which treason charges were dropped but which saw the former Navy journalist nevertheless convicted of having abused his position in the military. In this vein, Russian sources point to a possible role by Viktor Cherkesov in the court’s decision yesterday to defer judgment on Nikitin’s case. Cherkesov is 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 was head of the St. Petersburg branch of the FSB in 1996, and is believed to have played a key role in launching the case against Nikitin. According to Schmidt, Cherkesov was extremely upset when both the St. Petersburg court and then the Supreme Court acquitted Nikitin.
Those who are closely watching the Nikitin case suggest that the latest move by the Prosecutor General’s Office represents a potentially dangerous attack on the independence of the Russian judiciary–one they hope the Supreme Court will rebuff when it rules in September. It seems also to reflect the broader assault on democratic freedoms in Russia which has grown with the strengthening of the Russian security forces under Putin. Indeed, an effort by the Kremlin to cow the nation’s judiciary would seem to be fully consistent with Putin’s obvious moves to limit press freedom in Russia.
In this regard, the renewal of the case against Nikitin also presents a challenge to Western governments doing business with the Kremlin. The fact that Nikitin had to cut short his visit to the United States as a result of developments in Moscow compelled some U.S. lawmakers to pressure President Bill Clinton into raising the issue during his talks with Putin at the G-8 summit in Japan. It is unclear whether Clinton in fact did so. More recently the U.S. State Department expressed its concerns about the Nikitin case, and said that the effort to reopen the investigation constituted a manipulation of the court system and a form of harassment directed by the Russian government against its critics. The Norwegian government has likewise expressed its dismay over the renewal of the case against Nikitin and reportedly has asked for an explanation from the Russian ambassador (www.bellona.no, July 31-August 2; Reuters, August 1; AFP, August 2; Russian agencies, August 1-2; Segodnya, August 3; UPI, July 19-20).
The West has of late muted its criticism of Russia’s human rights record, however, and, particularly in the runup to the Supreme Court’s September ruling, there is little reason to believe that it will alter that policy substantially over Nikitin.
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