By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — On November 27, a Supreme Court judge here refused to order the release pending trial of Grigory Pasko, a Vladivostok naval journalist charged with treason after reporting on the dumping of nuclear waste by the Russian navy's Pacific Fleet. Before his arrest on November 20 last year, Pasko had also been investigating the dumping of chemical weapons in the Sea of Japan.
The judgment against Pasko provides a sobering follow-up to a victory for Russian environmentalists on October 29, when a St Petersburg court refused to find in favour of treason charges against nuclear safety activist Aleksandr Nikitin. Like Pasko, Nikitin has faced as much as 20 years in prison.
In both cases, the charges were brought by the Federal Security Service (FSB — the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB).
In turning down Pasko's application for release, the judge argued that the charges against him were too serious. This ignores a clear precedent set in the similar case of Nikitin. Intense international publicity helped force the Russian authorities to release Nikitin late in 1996 after 10 months in prison.
The heat placed on the authorities over the Nikitin case owed much to untiring work by a Norwegian environmental organisation, the Bellona Foundation, for which Nikitin had co-authored a report on nuclear safety issues and Russia's Northern Fleet. Pasko's foreign collaborators have not been so loyal.
As well as writing for the Pacific Fleet's newspaper Boevaya Vakhta ("Combat Watch"), Pasko has also worked for the leading Japanese newspaper Asahi and the television corporation NHK. Video footage which Pasko shot in 1993 of nuclear waste dumping by the Russian navy was later shown in Japan by NHK, causing an international furore.
But since the prosecution of Pasko was launched, the English-language Moscow Times reported on November 27, the Japanese media have not supported him, "and are trying to disclaim knowledge of the footage he provided". Pasko has now brought a court suit against NHK, arguing that the videotape of the waste dumping was broadcast without his consent.
Pasko's main international support has come from groups defending journalists' rights. According to the Moscow Times, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists appealed to Russian President Boris Yeltsin during October for Pasko to be released.
"Because the state's charges are groundless and pursuing the prosecution would severely damage press freedom in your country", the committee wrote, "CPJ urges you to drop the state's charges against Pasko and release him immediately".
Within Russia, Pasko has received strong backing from Vladivostok environmental activists and, informally, from fellow naval officers. Fear of the security police, however, has meant that protests in the Vladivostok media have been few and low-key.
In Moscow, a Public Committee to Defend Grigory Pasko has been formed by environmentalists and journalists' rights advocates. The committee's best known member is Professor Aleksey Yablokov, co-chairperson of the Social-Ecological Union and for years Yeltsin's adviser on environmental issues.
"In the Pasko case, the security service is trying, despite Russian law and international standards accepted by Russia, to limit the spread of environmental information using the framework of 'state secrets'", the Moscow committee charged in an October 7 letter to Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.
In a further statement, the Moscow committee has protested at the way the security forces have conducted their investigation:
"The actions of the prosecution have continually been accompanied by such crude breaches of the law that this alone, irrespective of the charges, would provide a basis for terminating the case."
Pasko has been denied access to the materials to be used in the case against him. Held until recently in an overcrowded cell with at least 40 other inmates, he may have contracted tuberculosis. He has also been denied visits from his wife since she published an article defending him.
Pasko's supporters argue that the prosecution has been unable to find real evidence against him. The main allegation by the security police is that Pasko was guilty of "collecting and storing materials containing state secrets with the intention of disclosing them".
The defence team has been able to study the materials seized from Pasko and, according to lawyer Karen Nersisyan, they contain "absolutely nothing that could be considered a state secret".
A further allegation is that Pasko provided assistance to a foreign state or organisation in conducting hostile activity to the detriment of Russian external security. But if the foreign organisations he assisted — Asahi and NHK — engage in "hostile activity" against Russian security, then the Russian state has a foreign relations problem whose scope extends far beyond Pasko's journalism.
In earlier days, the KGB-FSB would simply have locked up people like Pasko and Nikitin in mental asylums. Now it has to give them a trial, and its blunderings in the legal system would be comic if the results for the victims — including the Russian environment — were not so grim.
The most appalling thing is that the FSB plainly does not care very much that it looks foolish, and quite likely has no need to care. Judges in Russia sniff the political wind, and now that the country's finances are crumbling and the new elite is looking for ways to protect its wealth in chaotic times, the wind is blowing against democratic rights.
The judge in the Nikitin case threw out the FSB's charges, instructing the prosecution to make its case more specific. But the fact that the Supreme Court a month later refused to set Pasko free confirms that the human rights climate is deteriorating swiftly.
Nikitin was tried by a civilian judge, but Pasko has not been allowed to get even that far. When his trial takes place — no firm date has been set — it will be before a tribunal of officers from the Pacific Fleet, the same organisation whose FSB apparatus is doing the prosecuting.
Unless intense international pressure is applied to the Russian government over the case, the conclusion of the Moscow defence committee may well be borne out: "There is every reason to fear that the journalist Grigory Pasko will be illegally convicted".