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Russia: Security Service Tries To Quash Environmental Movement

  • Matt Frost

A Russian court declared military journalist Grigorii Pasko a free man yesterday after a seven-month, closed-door trial in the Far Eastern port of Vladivostok. Pasko was cleared of charges of high treason for passing confidential information to a Japanese television station but was found guilty of abusing his powers as a military journalist. Our correspondent gives Pasko's reaction to the verdict and discusses the implications for Russia's environmental movement.

Prague, 21 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian military journalist Grigorii Pasko was freed from a Vladivostok jail yesterday after a military court ruled that he had misused his office but was entitled to amnesty. Pasko -- a former officer in the Russian Navy and a reporter for the Pacific Fleet newspaper -- was arrested in November 1997.

Pasko was still found guilty of abuse of power for personal gain and violating the interests of society and the state. He was sentenced to three years in prison but immediately set free under an amnesty bill signed into law last month by President Boris Yeltsin.

The Pacific Fleet military court ruled that the treason and espionage charges against Pasko were unfounded, saying the information he had given Japan's NHK television station was not secret.

Tengis Gudava of RFE/RL's Russian Service spoke to Pasko by telephone in Vladivostok shortly after his release. Gudava asked the 37-year-old journalist how he felt after more than 20 months in jail and after escaping a potential 12-year prison sentence for treason:

"In the first place, the decision was not totally unexpected, because it would have been scandalous to sentence an innocent man to 12 years' imprisonment. The only correct decision was to release me. Therefore, to use footballing jargon, you can say the score is a tie (1:1)."

The court found that much of the evidence against Pasko had been collected in violation of the law and that two of the documents submitted as evidence by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) -- heir to the Soviet-era KGB -- had been falsified.

Pasko was asked if he agreed with the verdict that found him guilty of abuse of power:

"No way. In the criminal case, there is no evidence for the charge of Article 275 [abuse of power under the Russian criminal code], but not even under Article 285 on the misuse of office, for one very simple reason. I am not a public servant. This is an absolute basic thing."

Much of the trial was held in secret, but prosecutors said publicly that Pasko had handed over 10 documents containing state secrets to Japanese television and divulged information about the combat readiness of Russia's Pacific Fleet.

Pasko said the case was fabricated by the FSB to punish him for reports he filed on Japanese TV about the Pacific Fleet's nuclear-waste dumping practices. Pasko said his material documented environmental hazards at several fleet facilities but did not involve classified information.

Pasko said the aim of the trial was to silence him. He said the FSB had been trying to get him to collaborate with them for some time but that he had refused. He says the FSB knew he had a wide circle of people who shared information with him. Pasko:

"From simple sailors to foreign correspondents, including generals and admirals. Because I have always been an honorable journalist. The FSB wanted to exploit this."

Pasko was asked about prison conditions during his 20-month detention in Vladivostok.

"The same conditions as everywhere [in Russia]. For the last year, I was held in solitary confinement, and in as much as I was on my own, then it was more or less bearable. But where people are held 50 or 40 in a cell, then these are very difficult conditions."

The Pacific Fleet's branch of the Federal Security Service said it still wants to review the results of Pasko's case, but appears to have accepted the verdict. Pasko qualified for the amnesty because he had already served more than one-third of his full three-year sentence and was a first-time offender.

Pasko says he is determined to appeal his conviction to the Supreme Court. He has seven days to do so. But Pasko's lawyer, Anatoly Pyshkin, said his client might be wise to quit while he is ahead because of the risk that the court could order a new trial.

Under Russian law, the appeal would be considered by a special Supreme Court panel made up of seven military officers. Pyshkin said a final decision on whether to appeal will be made next week.

Pasko's case is not the only one where Russia's FSB appears to be attempting to quash Russia's budding environmental movement.

-- The Federal Security Service recently raided the Vladivostok laboratory and home of Vladimir Soifer. Soifer is an internationally known scientist who has been investigating the problem of nuclear waste and storage in Russia's Far East.

-- Alexander Nikitin -- a retired navy captain -- was also accused of espionage for helping the Norwegian environmental organization Bellona document nuclear pollution by Russia's Northern Fleet. Nikitin was later released from prison but the FSB is moving to renew the case.

Vladimir Putin -- director of the Federal Security Service -- recently defended his agency's vigilant stance against environmentalists, claiming that foreign agents are penetrating ecological organizations and endangering state security.

Environmentalists say the FSB is simply trying to help the military cover up an embarrassing legacy of neglect.