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Russia: Acquitted Environmentalist May Face Retrial

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Russian environmental whistle-blower Aleksandr Nikitin will find out tomorrow (Wednesday) whether he faces a retrial. Nikitin was charged with revealing state secrets in 1995 after he wrote of the dangers of Russia's decaying nuclear submarines, but he was acquitted last December. Russia's highest court authority will meet tomorrow to rule on the prosecution's appeal seeking to overturn that acquittal. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 1 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Lawyers for Aleksandr Nikitin say the prosecution's refusal to accept the acquittal of the whistle-blower means Russian authorities want to suppress information on potential environmental disasters.

After five years of investigation and 13 court decisions, Nikitin was acquitted of spying charges. That acquittal was upheld by the Supreme Court. But now he risks a retrial, if the Russian prosecutor's office gets its way. The appeal to overturn the acquittal was filed by the Deputy Prosecutor-General Sergei Kekhlerov.

Human rights activists see the move as persecution of Nikitin. After the former Soviet naval officer went public about the environmental hazards of Russia's decrepit nuclear vessels and leaky nuclear storage sites, authorities hit him with charges of spying. The case made him Russia's most famous environmentalist and stirred suspicions that the security service, the FSB, was pressuring the prosecution. Nikitin was one of the first people in post-Soviet Russia to be named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.

The news of this last appeal reached Nikitin in the United States, where he was to receive an environmental award and testify before a U.S. congressional panel about environmental threats in Russia. He immediately returned to Russia to await the court's decision.

In asking for a reversal of the December acquittal, Deputy Prosecutor General Kekhlerov argues that the case had been handled with many violations of Nikitin's rights.

Yuri Schmidt, Nikitin's lawyer, says the prosecutor's logic is inconsistent. Schmidt said that for years, the defense filed complaint after complaint about violations of Nikitin's rights, only to have them all rejected by the prosecutor's office. But now the same prosecutor is admitting these violations, to use them as a pretext for reopening the case.

"In 40 years of legal practice, I've never seen worse cynicism, worse abuse of the constitution and of human rights -- for the prosecution to justify the overturning of an acquittal with the very violations it committed."

What has become known as the Nikitin case has lasted almost five years. In October 1995, Russia's security service raided the Murmansk office of the Norwegian-based environmental association Bellona and confiscated all documents, including a report to be published on the ecological hazards of the Northern Fleet nuclear submarines. The FSB arrested Nikitin, one of the report's researchers, saying he had divulged state secrets. Indicted on eight sets of espionage charges, Nikitin spent 10 months in jail.

The defense maintained Nikitin's absolute innocence, arguing that all the information came from open and public sources and did not fall under any law on state secrets.

The proceedings dragged on and on, as the state came up with new laws on state secrets and tried to retroactively apply them to the case. The defense, meanwhile, complained of harassment by the FSB. Nikitin's family members said they were being constantly followed and their home searched in their absence.

After Nikitin was finally acquitted by a Saint Petersburg court last December, the prosecutor general's office appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court then rejected the appeal and enforced the acquittal, formally closing the case.

Nikitin told RFE/RL today that he suspects that the FSB is behind the actions taken by the prosecution against him and other environmentalist

"The FSB has a certain strategy or conception that has been stated several times by FSB officials, including by former FSB Director Nikolai Kovalyov. They claim that secret services, foreign secret services, are using environmentalist organizations as a cover for spying. That's why everything that happens with ecological associations -- probes by the prosecutor general's office, persecutions of certain people, persecutions of some organizations, and so on -- in principle, it all fits into this strategy."

Last week, Nikitin also criticized the recent dissolution of the government's official ecological watchdog, the State Committee on the Environment. Nikitin said doing away with the agency would make it difficult to assess the risks posed by industrial or mining ventures.

Aleksei Simonov, the head of the private Glasnost Defense Fund -- a group defending freedom of expression -- says Nikitin's case is not an isolated one, but is part of a pattern of suppressing information on environmental degradation. Simonov says environmentalists have become a prime target of the FSB.

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