Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 10

A controversial Russian treason trial, one that has been under the scrutiny of international human rights groups for over three years, appears in recent weeks to be drawing attention and criticism from a more general and ever widening circle of political actors both in and outside of Russia. It seems, moreover, that the case against military journalist Grigory Pasko, who was arrested in late 1997 on charges of passing classified information to the Japanese media, is also being seen increasingly as representative of a broader assault by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on defense and foreign policy experts who in one way or another have cultivated close ties to groups based outside of Russia. It nevertheless remains unclear whether a spate of recent protests over Pasko’s treatment by authorities signals the emergence of a more general public backlash against the FSB’s heavy-handed methods, or whether the protests reflect only a more limited and ephemeral political event, one that will ultimately dissipate without having made any positive impact on Russia’s judicial system. Equally unclear is whether recent expressions of criticism from Western governments over Pasko’s treatment represent a real move to get tough with the Kremlin on the subject of its spotty human rights record, or whether, as seems more likely, they are largely a public relations effort that will ultimately do little to change Russian policy.

The direct cause of this commotion is the surprise decision by a court of the Russian Pacific Fleet on December 25 to find Pasko guilty of high treason and sentence him to four years of hard labor. As has been widely reported (see the Monitor, January 2), most observers had expected Pasko to be fully exonerated in Vladivostok. The one-time military reporter, whose investigations of the Pacific Fleet’s mishandling of nuclear waste materials had originally gotten him into trouble with the authorities, had been acquitted of the treason charges in July of 1999, and had appealed the decision only because he was found guilty at that time on a lesser charge of abusing his military authority. The case that the prosecutors argued against Pasko in his latest trial, moreover, was widely recognized to have been a flimsy one, resting ultimately not on any proof that he had actually passed secret information to a Japanese news agency, but only on the allegation–which itself was poorly supported–that he intended to do so. The awkward legal reasoning that the military court used to substantiate its verdict led some observers to charge that the judges in the case were unduly influenced by the FSB and, possibly, by the Russian Pacific Fleet command.

Pasko has since said that he will appeal the Vladivostok decision to the Russian Supreme Court, and military prosecutors have actually criticized the four-year sentence meted out to Pasko indicating that they will ask for a twelve-year imprisonment term. The court decision has sparked a number of small protests throughout Russia, however. Four people were arrested in Moscow early last week for their participation in a protest action aimed at getting Pasko released from jail, and dozens of demonstrators with the same goal in mind are reported to have gathered outside the offices of the FSB in Vladivostok on January 10. According to a report published on the website of the Bellona Foundation, the Norwegian-based environmental group, various protests took place last week in a number of other Russian cities as well. Additional actions are planned for the coming week.

Meanwhile, an international group representing the newspaper industry–the Paris-based Association of Newspapers–announced its call for Pasko’s release last week. Of perhaps greater import, on January 7 Amnesty International named the former Russian captain a prisoner of conscience. Amnesty described the prosecution of Pasko as a “political reprisal for exposing the practice of dumping nuclear waste.” It also characterized the court decision as a violation of Pasko’s right to freedom of expression, and said that the conviction chills legitimate inquiry into matters of public interest in Russia. In addition, the organization lined up behind those Russian legal experts who have argued that the Vladivostok court’s use of a secret Defense Ministry decree to help secure Pasko’s conviction itself violates a Russian Supreme Court ruling to the effect that the constitution forbids the use of secret decrees in criminal cases.

Pasko appears also to be gathering some potentially influential backers in Russia. On January 12 a Russian State Duma deputy, Aleksandr Shishlov from the Yabloko faction, requested the Supreme Court’s Military Collegium to release Pasko from prison while his appeal is being considered. Shishlov, who is a member of the Council of Europe’s judicial rights committee, also offered himself as an official sponsor for Pasko. More surprisingly, Pasko appears also to be receiving the support of Federation Council Speaker and close Putin-ally Sergei Mironov. In public statements that followed a thirty-minute meeting with Pasko’s attorney last week, Mironov repeated earlier criticism of the decision in the Pasko case and expressed his own willingness to stand as a sponsor for the Russian captain so that he can be freed from prison. Mironov also indicated his intention to raise the issue with President Vladimir Putin during a meeting that was scheduled for this past weekend (although it is not clear whether this appeal was in fact delivered).

Russian authorities, meanwhile, have struck back by criticizing those who have protested or spoken out against Pasko’s conviction. The press office of a Pacific Fleet FSB directorate issued an appeal to the media last week, for example, which accused protestors of trying both to politicize Pasko’s case and to exert pressure on the court involved in the case. Meanwhile, Russia’s main military prosecutor, Mikhail Kislitsyn, expressed his bewilderment over the statements in support of Pasko that have been made by Russian political figures and media organizations. Kislitsyn also suggested that he had seen enough evidence to convince him that Pasko had indeed betrayed Russia (AFP, RFE/RL, January 8;, January 9; Moscow Times, January 11;, January 7, 9-11; Vremya MN, January 9).