Russia should immediately release Igor Sutiagin, an arms researcher jailed on espionage charges, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today, on the fourth anniversary of his imprisonment by Russia’s Federal Security Service.

In the briefing paper, “Russia’s ‘Spy Mania’: A Study of the Case of Igor Sutiagin,” Human Rights Watch said that the Sutiagin case was part of a broader pattern of dubious espionage charges brought against Russian citizens who were working with foreign contacts on sensitive issues that until recently had been under thorough KGB control. These issues include nuclear-waste dumping, environmental degradation, national defense preparedness and military technology.

In the past eight years, the Federal Security Service (FSB)—the successor to the KGB—has pressed espionage charges along these lines against about a dozen people. Sutiagin, in pretrial custody at the FSB’s Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, is the only one of those similarly charged who remains in prison.

“Four years of pretrial detention is excessive,” said Rachel Denber, acting director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch. “Igor Sutiagin should be released immediately.”

Four years ago today, FSB officers detained Sutiagin, an employee of the Institute of U.S.A. and Canada Studies, at his home in Obninsk, Kaluga province. Several days later, the FSB charged him with spying for U.S. military intelligence.

In December 2001 the Kaluga Province Court returned the criminal case to the FSB, stating that procedural violations committed during the investigation made it impossible to rule on the case. The case recently returned to the courts, and a jury at the Moscow City Court is expected to start hearing the case later this year. Sutiagin faces a 12- to 20-year prison term if convicted.

Leading Russian human rights campaigners have coined the term “spy mania” (in Russian, shpionomania) to describe the trend of dubious espionage cases. They believe the FSB has intentionally pressed false charges against these individuals to reclaim what it sees as its exclusive dominion over sensitive issues, and to impose new limitations on freedom of expression on these topics.

In each of these criminal cases, the FSB systematically violated the defendants’ right to a fair trial: it put forward vaguely formulated charges, refused to verify claims that all information provided to foreign contacts came from the public domain, and based the charges on secret decrees that the defendants were not allowed to see. FSB officials publicly asserted the defendants’ guilt. In the Sutiagin case, a court ruled in December 2001 that the charges were so vaguely formulated that they were “impossible to understand.”

“Spy mania” appears to have a prescriptive aim: to have a chilling effect on the wider community of journalists, scientists and activists who work on sensitive issues and to serve as a warning to them. Some of the “spy mania” defendants had told Human Rights Watch that their fellow journalists and researchers had become reluctant to engage in research or writing that could trigger the FSB’s suspicion.

“The effect of these cases goes well beyond the individual defendants,” Denber said. “It fosters an atmosphere of self-censorship.”

The paper furthermore called on the Russian government to take steps to strip the FSB of its powers to conduct criminal investigations and to run detention centers. Such reforms were among the accession criteria for Russia’s membership in the Council of Europe.