Espionage charges laid against Russian ecologist

October 16, 1996

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — After eight months in prison, Russian anti-nuclear activist Aleksandr Nikitin has now had formal charges brought against him. On October 2, the Federal Security Service (FSB) announced that it had completed its investigation, and had indicted Nikitin on charges of espionage and passing state secrets.

A former naval captain, Nikitin has also been charged with illegally using his military identification card to obtain access to classified documents.

As the English-language Moscow Times observed on October 4, it is not only Nikitin who will be on trial, but also the Russian justice system. The case is among the most important tests of human rights and the rule of law in Russia since the end of the Soviet period. On August 30, Amnesty International declared Nikitin a prisoner of conscience, the first in Russia since Andrei Sakharov in the 1980s.

An expert on nuclear submarines, Nikitin after retiring from the navy worked in St Petersburg as a consultant for the Norwegian environmental organisation Bellona, which has been studying radioactive contamination by the Russian navy's Northern Fleet. He is among the authors of a recently released Bellona report on this topic.

The long delay in charging Nikitin reflects the difficulties faced by the FSB in putting together a credible, legally sound case. Nikitin's father-in-law, retired Vice-Admiral Yevgeny Chernov, has compiled a 78-page document which, according to defence lawyers, proves that all the information used in Bellona's report was freely available from open sources.

The charges against Nikitin rest mainly on Chapter Eight of the report, dealing with accidents on Russian nuclear submarines. Ironically, this section was based extensively on a 1993 report prepared by President Boris Yeltsin's environmental adviser, Professor Aleksey Yablokov.

According to Bellona, a September 26 report by an expert committee of the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry agreed that Bellona's report contained no state secrets. However, the FSB is believed to have disregarded that finding and turned instead to a contrary report by the General Staff.

Faced with evidence that the "secrets" in Bellona's report were available to anyone patient enough to work through the published literature, the FSB is expected to insist that this fact has no bearing on the case. According to press reports, the security service will argue that Nikitin was obliged to abide by two secret Defence Ministry decrees adopted in 1993 that identify which items are subject to classification.

The fact that Nikitin is banned from citing information publicly quoted by others is absurd enough. But because he quit the navy in 1992, Nikitin could not even have known about the Defence Ministry's secret list, which the authorities, for good measure, now refuse to reveal to his defence lawyers. Under the Russian constitution, an individual cannot be held criminally responsible for violating unpublished laws or decrees.

The charges appear to be unconstitutional on other grounds as well. Chief defence lawyer Yury Schmidt notes that article 42 prohibits anything that "constitutes a threat to the health of the population of Russia" from being classified as a secret.

"The FSB will have to prove that nuclear accidents on submarines are not ecological disasters", co-counsel Viktor Drozdov argued to the Moscow Times. "In order to do that, they will have to prove that radioactive waste has no impact on the environment, and they can't possibly do that."

The above examples suggest strongly that the FSB does not regard the law, or even the constitution, as a serious check on its activity. Sadly for human rights in Russia, the FSB's calculations on this score can be seen as largely correct.

Every two months since arresting Nikitin in February, the FSB has had to present him in court for bail hearings. Each time, his release has been denied on the basis of the FSB's requests, without any significant review of the case.

On March 29 Russia's highest legal authority, the Constitutional Court, ruled that Nikitin should receive a civilian rather than a military trial. But in a closed-door hearing on June 10, a civilian court judge granted an application from an FSB prosecutor for the trial to be transferred to a military tribunal. Unless this finding is overturned, the trial will be closed to the public, and the FSB will have additional controls over Nikitin's lawyers.

The reluctance of judges to refuse demands from the FSB, even when the legal basis for these demands is paper-thin, would be a burning political issue in a society with vigilant representative institutions and a developed culture of democracy. But the Russian parliament, dominated by Communists and authoritarian nationalists, has shown no significant interest in the Nikitin case.

Nor, for the past few months, has the Russian-language Moscow press. Newspapers in St Petersburg have covered the case, but have been hostile to Nikitin, branding him a spy and a traitor on the basis of interviews with FSB investigators.

Nikitin's defenders in Russia — environmentalists and human rights activists, along with the "civilised left" and some of the more far-sighted liberals — are few and isolated. A great deal therefore depends on the ability of concerned people in other countries to keep Nikitin's plight in the headlines.