By Renfrey Clarke
MOSCOW — The defence of human rights and the environment in Russia scored an important victory on October 29, when a St Petersburg judge rejected treason charges brought by security police against nuclear safety campaigner Aleksandr Nikitin.
As picketers stood outside the courthouse with placards that read "The prosecution of Nikitin is a disgrace to Russia", Judge Sergey Golets ordered the Federal Security Service (FSB) to reframe its indictment.
The FSB had alleged that Nikitin, a retired naval captain working for the Bellona Foundation, a Norwegian environmental group, revealed secret information in a 1995 Bellona report he co-authored.
Nikitin and his defenders maintained that all the information in the report, which dealt with reactor safety and nuclear waste storage in the Russian navy's Northern Fleet, was already freely available from published sources.
Nikitin's arrest in February 1996 capped a four-month campaign of harassment by the FSB against Bellona activists in Russia. After being detained, Nikitin was held in prison for 10 months while the FSB began a years-long effort to build a case against him.
The prosecution became a major issue in Norwegian-Russian relations and drew protests from numerous international organisations, including the European Parliament. During 1996 the human rights body Amnesty International adopted Nikitin as its first prisoner of conscience in post-Soviet Russia.
The case was finally sent to court in July, and the trial began on October 20. Most of the proceedings were closed to all but a handful of outside observers.
The eventual result, Human Rights Watch representative Diederik Lohman told journalists, was "as close as a judge could get to acquitting under the current criminal procedure law".
In order to acquit, a Russian judge must draw up a detailed rebuttal of each of the prosecution's charges. But Golets decided that the FSB's case was so vague that such a rebuttal was impossible.
The FSB must now decide whether to abandon the case, or to resume trying to do what it has been unable to manage in almost three years — to find believable grounds for its allegations. If it returns to court with a new, more specific set of charges, it risks the humiliation of Nikitin being acquitted.
Until the case is finally concluded, Nikitin remains on conditional release, forced to seek official permission if he wishes to leave St Petersburg. "This is not a complete victory for us", chief defence lawyer Yury Shmidt cautioned after the judge's decision was announced. Nevertheless, Shmidt said, it was "a crushing defeat for the FSB".
The case has provided many frightening insights into the mentality and methods of Russia's security forces.
In moving against Bellona, the FSB took up what appears to have been an appeal from the naval authorities for help in intimidating environmentalists and covering up the mishandling of reactor waste — even though large areas in and around naval bases were threatened with catastrophic contamination.
At first, the FSB refused to allow Nikitin the choice of his own defence lawyer. Only a Constitutional Court decision won the Bellona researcher that right.
Then, when investigators were unable to find real evidence — the supposedly secret information Nikitin passed on was drawn from sources as well- known as Jane's Fighting Ships and a textbook used in Russian technical colleges — the security service charged him with breaching secret Defence Ministry regulations.
These were adopted after Nikitin left the navy, so he could not have known their content; nevertheless, they had retrospective force. The text of these regulations was provided to the defence only on the day the trial opened.
Under the Russian constitution, no-one can be charged on the basis of secret legislation. Nor, for that matter, does the constitution allow information on the environment to be classified as secret. But the FSB does not seem to regard the constitution as placing limits on its operations.
Russian environmentalists believe the FSB may also have planted a string of fanciful stories about Nikitin that appeared in the St Petersburg press. The environmental campaigner was reported to have entered closed research institutes using forged documents. He was also said to have been dragged from a train when about to flee to Ukraine and then to Canada.
In an important sense, the FSB as well as Nikitin has been on trial in this case — and unlike Nikitin, the security police have unquestionably been found guilty. Ironically, the case has also drawn far more attention to the navy's deplorable nuclear safety record than might otherwise have been the case.
The trial, however, was news only in the west. In Moscow, the prominent daily Segodnya gave the outcome only two column inches, while Nezavisimaya Gazeta ignored it entirely.
In general, the only important media organs in Russia that have featured Nikitin's plight have been those of the foreign-language press. The business tycoons who control the Russian media clearly view the FSB as too dangerous to offend.
Sadly, many Russian environmentalists will have drawn the same conclusion. Addressing a press conference on October 19, Diederik Lohman remarked:
"Even if Nikitin is acquitted on all the charges, a great deal has already been lost. I would not blame any Russian who now thought twice before becoming involved in environmental issues, knowing that a colleague had spent 10 months in prison and three years under investigation, denied the right to travel."
Nikitin himself does not seem to have been deterred. Early in the trial, he reportedly expressed confidence that after it ended he would continue his work on the safe handling of radioactive materials.