Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 132

Russia’s human rights record and, more specifically, the penchant of the country’s secret services for imprisoning researchers in the security field, was the focus of a letter publicized yesterday by a Western rights group seeking the immediate release of a Russian specialist accused of high treason. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) has reportedly drafted a letter demanding that Russian authorities grant immediate freedom to Igor Sutyagin, the 35-year-old head of a military and technical studies section at Russia’s prestigious USA and Canada Institute. Sutyagin was arrested last October and charged with high treason for, according to some reports, allegedly passing classified information to a foreign state. He has been incarcerated in a jail in the Russian city of Kaluga for the nine months that have elapsed since his arrest, despite the fact that Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), the agency which arrested Sutyagin, has yet to release the details of the espionage charges against him.

In the letter reported on yesterday, the IHF charged that Sutyagin “never had access to state secrets” and that there are “no serious grounds for [his] detention.” It also cited reports of harsh conditions at the Kaluga jail in which Sutyagin is incarcerated, and accused Russian authorities of having breached Moscow’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights (AFP, July 6).

Given the appalling conditions in many of Russia’s prisons, the IHF concerns about Sutyagin’s well-being would seem to be legitimate. In comments reported last month, Sutyagin’s wife Irina said that he is in “bad physical and psychological condition” and that “his health has deteriorated.” She also said that FSB investigators had refused to provide her or her husband’s lawyer with any details of the charges against Sutyagin, and that her own visits to her husband had been limited to less than two per month. The family, meanwhile–Sutyagin has two young daughters–is reportedly undergoing financial hardships as a result of Sutyagin’s long incarceration.

Unlike the better-known cases of Aleksandr Nikitin and Aleksandr Pasko, two Russian nuclear researchers who also endured long incarcerations but ultimately won their freedom, Sutyagin’s case has received little attention abroad. That seems in part to be because the reasons for his arrest and the nature of the espionage case being built against him remain shrouded in mystery. At or around the time of Sutyagin’s arrest on October 28, FSB agents also searched the apartments of two of his colleagues: Princeton University Ph.D. candidate Joshua Handler and Pavel Podvig, a Russian arms control researcher who has published a book on the country’s nuclear forces. Sutyagin’s involvement in this sort of research work have led some to speculate that the FSB is trying to find proof that he passed nuclear secrets to a foreign government.

At the same time, Sutyagin was a primary researcher for a Canadian group preparing a study of civil-military relations in post-Communist countries. The study was conceived as part of a broader program of Canadian assistance to defense officials in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and was contracted out by Canada’s Department of National Defense to academics at York and Carleton Universities. As part of the program, defense officials from the countries involved–including Russia–were invited to seminars and academic centers in Canada. There they discussed transitions to Western-style civilian oversight of the military. Russian military officers were said to be enthusiastic participants in the visits, and Russian diplomats even attended the launching of a book which included Sutyagin’s research findings. Those findings were based on interviews openly conducted by Sutyagin with Russian defense officials.

According to Podvig, however, the FSB seems to have chosen to view the Canadian study as a front for the gathering of intelligence information. Podvig was quoted as saying that, in their interrogation of those Russian defense officials interviewed in connection with the Canadian study, FSB agents had implied that the survey actually involved some sort of espionage operation.

In a letter to the USA and Canada Institute, a senior administrator at York University wrote that he could “not believe that anyone, especially law enforcement officials, might consider such work as espionage or treason.” He also pointed out–with regret–that “of the twelve countries studied in this project, Russia is the only one where some officials seem to have found a Canadian study of civil-military relations to be a threat to national security.” Podvig observes that Sutyagin could not have passed classified information to a foreign government based on his work at the USA and Canada Institute, because the institute has no access to classified materials. And he joins those who describe it as laughable to suggest that the Canadian civil-military study could involve an effort to spy on Russia (The Globe and Mail, June 17; Washington Post, November 18, 1999; see background information provided at and the Monitor, January 7).

The broader and more important point, of course, is that FSB officials may not be not overly concerned whether Sutyagin was in fact involved in espionage activities directed at Russia. Last year, when Nikitin and Pasko won their court victories, there was some celebrating over the fact that the Russian security services had not been able to make their obviously trumped up treason charges stick. And from a legal standpoint, that celebrating may have had some justification. Yet the FSB’s activities in this area seem clearly to be aimed at chilling the cooperation between civilian Russian security specialists and their Western counterparts that developed following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Nikitin and Pasko eventually got off the hook, but their long and harrowing incarcerations still stood as an obvious threat to other Russian specialists involved in this kind of work, and as a disincentive to maintaining contacts with the West.

Sutyagin’s plight seems to make clear that the FSB, whose former director now sits in the Kremlin, is continuing this campaign to intimidate those working with the West on key security issues. The Canadian government could yet have to confront this reality on an official basis, given its connection to Sutyagin’s case and the charges alleged to have been leveled against him. What remains unclear is whether the West more generally will continue to avert its eyes from the growing power being wielded by Russia’s security forces, and whether it will ultimately hold the Russian government accountable for its record in this and other areas related to human rights.