London, 15 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Amnesty International (AI) has called for the immediate release of environmental activist Aleksandr Nikitin, who is accused of leaking Russian state secrets in a report about accidents on nuclear submarines in the Russian Northern Fleet.
He was arrested in February after giving an account of 19 accidents involving submarines in the Kola Peninsula and Severodvinsk region, said to have the highest concentration of nuclear reactors in the world.
AI says the retired naval captain intended to give a full picture of the contamination of this "potential disaster area" and to help experts set priorities for clean-up operations. But he was accused of treasonably passing on Russian secrets, an offense which can carry the death penalty.
AI criticizes his arrest in a report: "Russian Security Services (FSB) versus Prisoner of Conscience Nikitin: Return to Soviet Practices."
AI says the Nikitin case is one of the most controversial criminal cases in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It says the FSB prosecution is reminiscent of KGB practices against dissidents in Soviet times, and reflects the worsening human rights situation in Russia.
Nikitin is accused of passing secrets to a Norwegian environmental group, the Bellona Foundation, founded after the 1986 Chernobyl accident to monitor Europe's environment. He is charged with treason in the form of espionage under article 64 of the Russian Criminal Code.
The AI report says Nikitin wrote chapter eight of a Bellona report about contamination caused by accidents, most of them over 10 years ago, on nuclear submarines and their environmental consequences.
But AI says his action did not constitute a threat to Russian national security, or justify a restriction on his right to freedom of expression. It also says the FSB has violated national and international standards of criminal procedure and appears to be more concerned in obtaining a conviction than in establishing the truth through a fair judicial inquiry.
If Nikitin is convicted, the AI report says, "further arbitrary
prosecutions of innocent people by the FSB may follow."
It says the FSB has tried to depict Nikitin in the Russian media "as a traitor selling out his country for a pittance." But he has always maintained that all information used in his report came from published sources. Moreover, a Swedish nuclear expert said after reading the Bellona report, Nikitin appeared to have carefully considered the information he included to avoid harming Russia's security interests.
The Russian Federal Law on State Secrets, adopted in 1993, said no information about extraordinary incidents or catastrophes that endanger life and health may be classified as state secrets. Similar provisions are contained in the 1995 Federal Law on Information Handling. The AI report says this reflects an awareness that lack of openness in Soviet times was one of the main reasons for the disastrous ecological situation.
The AI report says that the chapter Nikitin wrote for the Bellona
report -- dealing, as it does, with accidents on nuclear submarines --
should not, under Russian law, be classified as state secrets.
It says the FSB attempts to classify information on the dangers of the Russian Northern Fleet clearly contradict efforts by Russian central and local authorities to prevent a "nuclear disaster" in northwest Russia. It says that the Bellona investigation into radioactive contamination of the environment in the region had the approval of Murmansk authorities.
Moreover, President Boris Yeltsin said on a visit to Norway in March that Russia does not have any complaints about Bellona.
The AI report says the prosecution has continuously violated legal procedures since Nikitin's arrest by obstructing the preparation of his defense and trying to transfer the case to a military court. It says the procurator, who under Russian law is responsible for ensuring legal procedures are observed, has openly sided with the prosecution.
The AI report says that Nikitin's health has reportedly deteriorated in detention. After she saw her husband during a court hearing on August 21, Tatyana Chernova told AI that she was shocked to see how he had changed. He had lost weight and looked exhausted and drawn.
The AI report says the Nikitin case reflects "the changing atmosphere" in Russia; and it notes that the Russian Presidential Commission on Human Rights said in its 1994-95 report that there had been a "distinct retreat from democratic achievements".
The AI report says some of the most disconcerting developments
identified by the Commission are the increasing militarization of society; the growing jurisdiction and powers of the security services; and the increasing classification of information as secret.
The report concludes by calling on the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe and the European Union to "urge Russian authorities to release Aleksandr Nikitin immediately and unconditionally."