Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 1

Human rights groups have again raised alarms regarding the Kremlin’s continued spotty rights record following the conclusion of a pair of spy trials that took place in Russia last week. One of the trials, held on December 25, saw Igor Sutyagin, a 36-year-old defense analyst at the prestigious USA-Canada, ordered back to jail despite a finding by a Moscow area court that the espionage charges leveled against him were vague and needed to be investigated anew. In the other case, Grigory Pasko, a Russian military journalist, was unexpectedly sentenced to four years in prison on spying charges similar to those on which he had been acquitted in 1999. The two trials are but the latest in a series of espionage cases that human rights groups believe reflect the growing power of Russia’s Federal Security Service. The FSB, which is the main successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB and was headed briefly in the 1990s by President Vladimir Putin, has launched a crackdown over the past half decade that appears to be aimed in particular at intimidating defense workers and chilling contacts between them and their foreign colleagues. Human rights groups charge that–as both the Sutyagin and Pasko cases would seem to attest–the FSB has used trumped-up charges, never-ending investigations and long periods of incarceration to achieve this goal.

Sutyagin was arrested in October of 1999 on charges of having passed secrets about Russian nuclear submarines and nuclear weapons to Washington and London via employees of a London-based firm who the FSB claims were working for the CIA. The case against him appears to be in some sense unique, and potentially ominous, because it is apparently not based on accusations that he had gained access to classified materials. Instead, it is his adroit analysis of open source materials that has apparently drawn the ire of Russian authorities. As Aleksei Simonov, head of the Russia-based Glasnost Defense Foundation, put it, the prosecution has tried to prove that Sutyagin “sold his brains to American imperialists.” If that can be considered a crime, he said, “then thought in this country is not free.”

Indeed, the feebleness of the FSB’s charges against Sutyagin were reflected in the verdict of the Kaluga court that tried the case. The court ruled that the FSB had violated legal procedures and had deprived Sutyagin of the constitutional right to defend himself by failing to specify the secrets he had allegedly divulged. But the decision, which would appear on the surface to be a rebuff of the Russian security service, did not result in freedom for Sutyagin. Instead, the court ordered that the case be returned to the FSB for further investigation. It also ordered Sutyagin back to prison, where he has now been for more than two years. The decision led Pavel Podvig, another leading Russian defense analyst, to say: “What the court has found was that the case against Sutyagin was fabricated by the FSB and the charges have no factual or legal foundation.” And while in “any other country these findings would have led to an acquittal,” Podvig continued, “in Russia, not only is the FSB getting a second chance at fabricating its charges, but Igor Sutyagin will be kept in jail for many more months” (Globe and Mail, Washington Post, December 28; Reuters, AP, December 27).

The conclusion of Captain Grigory Pasko’s trial, which took place two days later in Vladivostok, on December 27, was if anything an even more damning indictment of the FSB’s abuses and its continued ability to subvert the judicial process in Russia. Thirty-nine-year-old Pasko was a reporter with a newspaper run by Russia’s Pacific Fleet when he first drew the attention of authorities for his muck-raking investigations into the fleet’s mishandling of nuclear waste materials. He was arrested in November of 1997 on charges of having passed secret information about the Pacific Fleet to media in Japan (where there was considerable concern over, among other things, the Russian navy’s dumping of liquid nuclear wastes into the Sea of Japan). Pasko spent some twenty months in custody, during which time his health deteriorated badly, before he was acquitted of the treason charges in July of 1999 and released from prison. The court had found him guilty, however, of having abused his official authority, and he chose to appeal that verdict. The prosecution appealed as well, and in November of 2000 the Military Collegium of the Russian Supreme Court cancelled the original verdict and sent the case back to Vladivostok for retrial. Given the weakness of the prosecution’s original case, many observers had taken it for granted that Pasko would be exonerated fully when the retrial occurred. That he instead received a four-year sentence in a maximum security prison for treason shocked and outraged human rights groups, who characterized it as a miscarriage of justice and a reflection of the continuing unevenness of democratic reform in Russia.

Indeed, the very quality of the court decision suggests just how irregular the proceedings appear to have been. The four-year-sentence the court decreed, for example, which was shortened further by the twenty months that Pasko has already served, came despite the fact that the treason charge carries a minimum twelve-year prison sentence in Russia. Moreover, the court threw out nine of the ten charges leveled against Pasko for allegedly passing secrets to Japan and said that the one count on which Pasko was convicted had actually had little impact on Russia’s security. Stranger still, the court concluded not that Pasko had actually passed information on this last count to Japan, but that he had “intended” to do so. And this charge was apparently based on a single document, one involving notes that Pasko had taken in his capacity as a journalist in September of 1997 when he attended a meeting of the Pacific Fleet command. The incriminating document was reportedly found in his apartment.

It is unclear how Pasko’s case will proceed from here. Pasko’s attorneys have indicated that they will appeal the latest sentence to the Russian Supreme Court, and there have also been reports that he intends to bring the case before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The prosecution, meanwhile, said over the weekend that it too intends to appeal the verdict: It wants Pasko’s four-year sentence to be increased and has called for the case to be heard once again before the same Pacific Fleet military tribunal–but with a different set of judges. But Pasko appears to have picked up an unlikely ally in the person of Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov. Only recently appointed to that post by President Vladimir Putin, Mironov last week urged Pasko to appeal to the Kremlin for a presidential pardon. Pasko’s own representatives have indicated, however, that the former captain (he was also stripped of his military rank by the Vladivostok court) is interested only in a full exoneration and does not intend to ask for a pardon. Whether Putin would agree to grant a pardon is, in any case, unclear. The Russian president has in the past shown little sympathy for those, like Pasko and Sutyagin, who face treason charges, and he moved only a few days after Pasko’s verdict to eliminate Russia’s prisoner pardons committee. When it was first established by then President Boris Yeltsin in 1992 the committee was seen by many as an important symbol of the Kremlin’s new concern for human rights (AP, December 25;, December 12, 25; The Guardian, December 27; Washington Post, New York Times, December 26; AFP, December 26, 29).