Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 5

Russian environmentalists and human rights activists celebrated a rare and important legal triumph on December 29 when a Russian court in St. Petersburg acquitted a well-known former naval officer of treason charges. Aleksandr Nikitin’s victory appeared to mark a happy end to four years of persecution and harassment at the hands of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the country’s chief domestic counterintelligence agency and the primary successor organization to the Soviet-era KGB. Nikitin was originally arrested by FSB agents in February 1996 for his participation in a Norwegian study devoted to the environmental dangers posed by the Russian Northern Fleet’s handling of nuclear wastes. Nikitin then spent nearly eleven months in one of Russia’s many overcrowded and disease-ridden prisons, despite not having been formally charged with any crime. The former naval officer, who had worked for some eleven years as an engineer on Soviet nuclear submarines, was later charged with treason and faced a possible twelve-year prison term for having allegedly divulged classified information in the writing of the Norwegian study. Over the more than three years which followed his release from prison Nikitin was forbidden to leave Russia. Moreover, he and his family continued to be subjected to harassment by the FSB as the Russian security agency strung out its investigation of the charges and the case moved slowly through Russia’s justice system. During the course of the ordeal Nikitin’s wife and two children chose to emigrate to Canada, where they live today.

The December 29 ruling marked the third time that Nikitin’s case had been heard in court. Late last year Judge Sergei Golets–the same judge who ruled on December 29–had described the FSB charges against Nikitin as “incomplete” and “unclear.” Rather than dismissing the charges, however, he ordered the FSB to rework and resubmit its case. Nikitin’s defense team and the prosecution both appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, but it was upheld by Russia’s highest tribunal. The December 29 ruling to acquit Nikitin, which followed the FSB’s resubmission of the case, was hailed by human rights groups in Russia and elsewhere. Indeed, Nikitin had earlier been declared a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International–the first Russian to hold that honor since it was bestowed on Soviet physicist and Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov–and his cause was taken up by several Western governments. In July of last year, for example, Russian lawmakers were forced to protest a resolution adopted by the OSCE’s parliamentary assembly which described Nikitin as the “victim of unjust criminal proceedings.”

It is worth noting that Judge Golets based his acquittal of Nikitin in part on Russia’s status as a signatory to the European convention on human rights. He also accused the FSB of numerous procedural errors in the preparation and conduct of its case against Nikitin, and backed Nikitin’s claim that the material he had contributed to the Norwegian study was based entirely on open sources. But the judge appeared to base his acquittal most forcefully on the fact that Nikitin was accused of treason on the basis of secret Defense Ministry orders which the accused could not have known about and which had actually been promulgated only after Nikitin’s arrest. “The use of these orders is a direct violation of the constitution of the Russian Federation,” Golets ruled (AP, Reuters, Russian agencies, December 29; Washington Post, New York Times, Globe and Mail [Toronto], Financial Times, The Moscow Times, December 30).