Jailing of eco-activist brings headaches for Yeltsin

Issue 

MOSCOW — Jailed Russian environmentalist Alexander Nikitin has won an important victory in his fight to beat espionage charges brought against him by the Federal Security Service (FSB — the former KGB). On March 26 President Boris Yeltsin announced that Nikitin would be allowed a defence lawyer of his choice, instead of being forced on "security" grounds to accept an attorney appointed by the prosecuting organisation, the FSB.

The following day, the Russian Constitutional Court ruled that the FSB's efforts to deny Nikitin a free choice of lawyer had been unconstitutional. The security service will now have to prove its case in a genuine trial, instead of the brief, surprise-proof spectacle on which it had evidently counted.

Nikitin, a 43-year-old former naval captain, was employed from late 1994 by a Norwegian environmental organisation, the Bellona Foundation, helping to prepare reports on nuclear waste storage and radioactive contamination on the Kola Peninsula in Russia's Arctic north-west.

The site of a number of large nuclear submarine bases, the peninsula includes some of the most heavily irradiated territory on earth. Bellona has described huge amounts of lethal reactor waste being kept by the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet in aging, poorly constructed facilities.

On February 6 Nikitin was arrested in his St Petersburg apartment and charged with "treason in the form of espionage". The FSB alleges that he sold Bellona secret information on Russia's nuclear submarine defences. If convicted, Nikitin faces a minimum of 10 years' imprisonment, and could be sentenced to death. Bellona insists that the information Nikitin "divulged" was all obtained from open sources, and was already familiar to specialists in the west.

In the view of many Russian environmentalists, the prosecution is part of a broader effort by the commanders of the Northern Fleet, aided by the security forces, to intimidate eco-activists into giving up their attempts to expose neglect of nuclear safety.

Nikitin's arrest followed four months of harassment of Bellona and its Russian supporters. The organisation's offices in St Petersburg and Murmansk were raided, and computers and documents seized. Supporters were hauled in for interrogation and had their apartments searched.

But police-state methods no longer work as they used to. The case has now blown up into a major embarrassment for the authorities and for Yeltsin. Amnesty International and the European Parliament have issued statements condemning the prosecution. The case has soured relations between Russia and Norway.

Yeltsin's announcement that Nikitin would be allowed to choose his own lawyer came during a two-day visit by the Russian president to Norway, and the day after an angry demonstration in Oslo. At this gathering, 1000 environmentalists and human rights supporters demanded that Nikitin be freed and that the charges be dropped.

Environmental pollution from Russia is a sensitive issue for Norwegians. As well as radioactive contamination, which threatens Norway's Arctic fisheries, there is damage by emissions from Russia's giant Pechenga nickel complex.

Environmental issues figured prominently in the talks which Yeltsin held in Oslo with Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. While the two leaders failed to draft concrete measures to cut emissions from Pechenga, both said they would continue to work toward modernising the plant. They agreed to establish a fund for cleaning up nuclear wastes.

The persecution of Nikitin, however, must cause many Norwegians to look sceptically on Yeltsin's promises. What are these guarantees worth, when a researcher has been charged with treason for assembling information on the nuclear wastes concerned?

Brundtland raised the question of Nikitin with Yeltsin during the talks, but she does not seem to have pushed the Russian leader hard. Yeltsin later said that they had reached an "understanding" on the issue: "We will drop our complaints against Bellona, and the Norwegian side will not object to Nikitin being tried according to Russian laws with the lawyer of his choice".

However, the Norwegian government should object strongly both to Nikitin being tried, and to various points of the laws under which the charges were brought.

As the Moscow daily Segodnya explained on February 9, "the fact that information has been published 'for official use' in western publications does not constitute cause for removing the stamp of secrecy from it in Russia". Information may be circulated widely in the west, and even beamed back into Russia by satellite television, but a researcher who includes it in a report commits a crime and can be charged. As well as being absurd, this provision is a gross affront to human rights.

Bellona, fortunately, is made of sterner stuff than the Norwegian government. On March 28 Bellona leader Frederic Hauge was quoted as saying that his organisation intends to make Nikitin's case a major issue at the Group of Seven summit on nuclear safety, to be held in Moscow on April 19 and 20.