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In this atmosphere of changing fortunes, the FSB launched a series of criminal investigations into Russian citizens who were working with foreign contacts on issues that, until recently, had been its exclusive domain. The first of these cases began in September 1995, when the FSB raided the apartments of several employees and the Murmansk office of the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian environmental group, and confiscated various documents and computers.13 The Bellona Foundation had been documenting the environmental threat posed by submarines in northern Russia that were taken out of service but have not been decommissioned—research that would have been impossible in Soviet times. Five months later, in February 1996, the FSB arrested Alexander Nikitin, a retired naval officer and employee of the Bellona Foundation, and charged him with espionage.14

In subsequent years, a series of other cases followed. In November 1997, customs officials arrested Grigorii Pasko, a military journalist for the military newspaper Boevaia Vakhta (Battle Watch) who also worked as a stringer for a Japanese daily newspaper and television station. Charging him with espionage, the FSB alleged he had provided classified information to two Japanese journalists about Russia’s Pacific Fleet. In May 1998, the FSB arrested Valentin Danilov, director of a research center at Krasnoyarsk State Technical University, and charged him with espionage for allegedly passing classified information on aerospace technology to a Chinese company. The arrest of Valentin Moiseev, a Russian diplomat and Korea expert, followed two months later. The diplomat was also charged with espionage—for providing classified information on relations between Russia and North Korea to a South Korean diplomat. In October 1999, the FSB charged Vladimir Shchurov, the head of a research institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, with disclosing state secrets, after customs confiscated an acoustic device for measuring ocean noises he had sent to China. That same month, the FSB arrested Igor Sutiagin on espionage charges. In July 1999, the FSB found a secret map of a submarine base during a search at the apartment of Vladimir Soifer, a scientist who had for forty years worked on nuclear pollution problems in the Sea of Japan, and accused him of intending to disclose it to a foreign organization. In April 2000, the FSB charged Anatolii Babkin, a university professor, with espionage for providing materials on secret torpedo technology to a U.S. company. In August 2000, FSB officers charged Valerii Kovalchuk with illegal export of military technology.

While the defendants uniformly and vigorously asserted their innocence and their supporters made allegations that the investigations were politically motivated, the secrecy surrounding the investigations and the sensitive nature of the information with which the defendants worked made it difficult to assess whether the FSB had acted in good faith in opening these investigations. Yet, as the criminal investigations progressed, serious violations of criminal procedure in each case demonstrated a consistent pattern. The FSB refused to verify whether materials that formed the basis for the charges had been available in the public domain; grounded charges on secret decrees and refused to let defendants see them; formulated charges in vague terms; refused to appoint independent experts to assess the level of secrecy of materials provided to foreign contacts; committed numerous technical violations of procedural rules, and publicly asserted the defendants’ guilt. It became increasingly clear that the FSB was acting in bad faith in these investigations, seeking to have the defendants convicted while ignoring facts that could exonerate them.

Russia’s courts have struggled with the spy cases. On the one hand, the violations of the rights of the defendants were so numerous and glaring that they could not be ignored. On the other hand, the charges were brought by the successor to the KGB, the state agency that not so long ago literally dictated verdicts to judges. Courts that heard “spy mania” cases have only in rare cases mustered the courage to acquit defendants. Not yet used to their newly acquired right—and obligation—to independently and objectively rule on cases that have been investigated by the FSB, the courts in most cases sought to strike a compromise. Several courts opted to send cases back for “further investigation” citing serious violations of criminal procedure during the investigation. Others issued guilty verdicts for treason or less serious crimes and sentenced the defendants to terms in prison that are far below the twelve-year minimum term provided for in Russia’s criminal code—in apparent recognition of the weakness of these cases.15 A few courts have, after lengthy proceedings, courageously acquitted defendants. The following examples are illustrative of this pattern:

· In October 1998, the St. Petersburg City Court returned the case against Alexander Nikitin to the FSB for further investigation, pointing out that the investigation did not provide any factual evidence of the alleged crime, among other factors. When the case returned to the court eighteen months later with many of the same flaws, the judge acquitted Nikitin of all charges, amid an intense public outcry about the case.

· In July 1999, a military court in Vladivostok dismissed the treason charges against Grigorii Pasko, citing a lack of evidence of treason, but found Pasko guilty of the much less serious crime of abuse of office. The court immediately released Pasko under a general amnesty. After Russia’s Supreme Court overturned this ruling, the court in Vladivostok found Pasko guilty of espionage, striking eight of the nine counts, and sentenced him to four years of hard labor. Pasko had already spent twenty months in pretrial detention and was released thirteen months later.

· In February 2003, the Moscow City Court found Anatolii Babkin guilty of treason but sentenced him to an eight-year suspended prison term with five years of probation.

· In August 2003, a court in Vladivostok found Vladimir Shchurov guilty of disclosing state secrets. The court gave Shchurov a two years suspended sentence and immediately relieved him of the sentence under a general amnesty.

Although all the defendants in “spy mania” cases—with the notable exception of Igor Sutiagin—are no longer in prison, most continue to fight multi-year legal battles in the courts to clear their names. Grigorii Pasko appealed the guilty verdict against him to the Supreme Court and its presidium but to no avail. Having exhausted all domestic remedies, he has now filed an application before the European Court of Human Rights. Valentin Moiseev, who was sentenced in August 2001 to four and a half years in a maximum-security prison for treason, also unsuccessfully appealed his conviction, and is now waiting for the European Court of Human Rights to examine his case. The case against Valentin Danilov is still pending before the Krasnoyarsk City Court. So far, only the names of Alexander Nikitin and Valerii Kovalchuk have been fully cleared.

In each of these cases, the legal battles have paralyzed the defendants’ lives for years. Many spent at least several months in prison. They have spent years defending themselves against charges they regard as wrongful, instead of continuing their regular work. They have been stigmatized in the eyes of relatives and friends. In many cases, they have unwillingly become controversial public figures, often the subject of snide media reports. Finally, all have sustained major legal costs.

While these prosecutions are unlikely to lead to the formal reintroduction of Soviet-style blanket limitations on freedom of speech on sensitive issues, “spy mania” has certainly served as a warning to other journalists, scientists and activists working on sensitive issues. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of them have started to impose self-censorship to avoid being the FSB’s next victim. According to Oleg Panfilov, director of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations in Moscow, since 2000, many Russian newspapers, especially local ones, have become increasingly reluctant to write on the types of sensitive issues the “spy mania” defendants worked on. He believes this development is directly linked to “spy mania.”16 On a positive note, these cases caused a considerable outcry in much of the Russian media.

13 The criminal case against scientist Vil Mirzoianov preceded this series of investigations by a few years but is in many respect very similar. In that case, the security services pressed charges of disclosure of state secrets against scientist Mirzaianov, who, together with a colleague, had written several articles in 1991 and 1992 alleging that Russia continued to develop new kinds of chemical weapons in violation of its international obligations. The security services twice jailed Mirzaianov but each time released him after broad domestic and international campaigns. After two and a half years, the case was eventually closed.

14 For details on this case, see: Amnesty International, “Russian Federation: Federal Security Service (FSB) versus Prisoner of Conscience Aleksandr Nikitin: Return to Soviet Practices,” EUR 46/042/1996, September 1996.

15 Article 275 of the Russian criminal code establishes a twelve-year minimum and a twenty-year maximum prison term for treason. Valentin Moiseev and Grigorii Pasko, both of whom were convicted for treason, received four and a half and four year prison terms respectively.

16 Human Rights Watch telephone interview, Moscow, October 20, 2003.

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October 2003