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Russia: Nikitin Defense Reviews Secret Decrees

  • John Varoli

St. Petersburg, 23 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Lawyers for Russian environmental activist Aleksandr Nikitin have finally been allowed to see secret decrees on which the charges against him are based.

Nikitin, an ex-Russian Navy captain, is being tried on charges of high treason for having allegedly passed military secrets about the Northern Fleet's nuclear waste disposal practices to the Norwegian environmental organization Bellona.

Many see the Nikitin trial as a landmark case in Russia's efforts to develop into a society based on the rule of law.

Defense lawyer Yuri Schmidt told RFE/RL that "I cannot understand why we have been denied to see (the secret decrees) for the past two years. They do not contain anything that any civilized country considers a secret."

After reviewing the content of the decrees, Schmidt said that Nikitin's defense is now on stronger ground.

Schmidt explained that the decrees are merely guidelines to determine the level of secrecy of certain aspects of the defense sector. But they do not explicitly list what a secret is.

Schmidt said that the decrees contradict the Law on State Secrets, and while that law clearly specifies what is a secret, it is possible that according to the secret decrees everything connected to the military can be interpreted as a secret.

In Schmidt's own words, "Imagine that an army truck gets a flat tire. Well this too is a state secret."

During the first day of the trial in St. Petersburg, on Tuesday, Judge Sergei Golets ruled that the hearing would be closed to the public in order to protect Russian state secrets.

Yesterday, Nikitin testified before the court, explaining the nature of his work in the field of environmental protection and nuclear safety which led to his arrest by the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, in February 1996.

If convicted of treason, Nikitin, who co-authored a 1995 environmental report for Bellona, faces the maximum punishment of 20 years in jail.

Defense lawyers and human rights observers are refraining from making a prognosis on what might happen in the next few days, but they expressed satisfaction with the manner in which the court is handling the case.

According to Schmidt, Russian lawyers are used to the fact that judges are not prepared and know little about the issues at hand.

But in his opinion, judge Golets has made an effort to read up on the issues under question and has proven himself capable of understanding the complicated nature of nuclear technology.

Today, three witnesses for the prosecution are scheduled to take the stand. One is a Russian citizen who previously worked for Bellona in Murmansk. The second is a former colleague of Nikitin at the Defense Ministry's Nuclear Safety Department in Moscow, and the third is Nikitin's father-in-law, retired Russian Northern Fleet Admiral, Yevgeny Chernov.

Jon Gauslaa, the legal counselor for Bellona, told RFE/RL his group "will be surprised if these witnesses do not support (Nikitin's side of the) case." He said "everything is going so well that (Nikitin's allies) are a little suspicious" that something is being concealed.