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Russia: Pasko's Treason And Espionage Conviction Draws Protest

  • Francesca Mereu

The prosecutor's office of Russia's Pacific Fleet is protesting last month's Vladivostok court decision to sentence journalist Grigorii Pasko to four years in prison, saying the sentence is too lenient and that he should be given a nine-year term instead. Pasko, who has spent years battling prosecutors over the case, was convicted of espionage and high treason for attempting to pass sensitive material to the Japanese media about the fleet's dumping of nuclear waste in the Sea of Japan. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Francesca Mereu speaks to Pasko's wife and lawyer about the case.

Moscow, 14 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Neither the defense nor the prosecution is satisfied with last month's court ruling sentencing military journalist Grigorii Pasko to four years in prison for attempting to pass sensitive information to Japan about Russia's Pacific Fleet in 1993.

Lawyers for the 40-year-old Pasko say the conviction -- on charges of espionage and high treason -- is unjust and that they will seek an appeal. They say the decision is a kind of political reprisal for Pasko's work exposing hazardous environmental practices by the Russian navy, including the dumping of radioactive waste in the Sea of Japan.

Prosecutors, meanwhile argue that the sentence is too lenient and that the journalist should receive at least a nine-year term. The Military Procuracy made a similar argument in 1999, when Pasko's first court appearance ended with acquittals on all but a minor charge. This time around, prosecutors used a secret Defense Ministry decree to secure the conviction.

Pasko's case, which has seen him in and out of courtrooms and prison cells since he was first arrested by Federal Security Service (FSB) agents in 1997, has caught the attention of environmental and free-press advocates worldwide. It bears a striking similarity to the case of Alexander Nikitin, a retired navy captain who spent five years fighting treason charges after co-authoring a report on the dangers of Russia's nuclear fleet.

Nikitin was finally granted a final acquittal in 2000. But the fate of Pasko -- a former naval officer and reporter with the Pacific Fleet newspaper "Boyevaya Vakhta" -- remains uncertain.

Last week, protesters gathered outside the Vladivostok headquarters of the FSB to demand the journalist's release. Similar protests were held outside FSB headquarters in Moscow, and Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov criticized the ruling as unfair. "I consider it unnecessary for him to go and prove his innocence along the circles of hell of appeals to court," Mironov said. "The world public has long figured out who is right and who is to blame here."

Pasko's wife, Galina, told RFE/RL her husband was surprised by the court ruling: "[Grigorii] had no illusions about our Soviet -- and in particular, military -- judicial system. I mean that it hasn't changed since Soviet times. [Grigorii] had no illusions, but he was hoping for a fair court decision, since a person who isn't guilty always hopes for a fair sentence. He didn't expect the sentence he got, or, [at least], he didn't imagine he would be blamed to such a degree."

A member of Pasko's defense team, Alexander Tkachenko, spoke with RFE/RL from Vladivostok. He says Pasko was sentenced for allegedly attending a secret gathering of military commanders and handing the notes from the meeting to a Japanese newspaper.

"He was accused of having attended a meeting of the Military Council [commanders] and of having taken notes [during the meeting] in order to write an article for ['Boyevaya Vakhta']. [Moreover], he is accused of intending to hand over these notes, illegally taken at the Military Council, to journalists of the [Japanese] paper 'Asahi Sinbun.' [Note that the prosecutors say] he only intended. This means that he is not accused of espionage, but only of intending to give 'Asahi Sinbun' an article about the military-tactical training of the Pacific Fleet. The accusation is not only ridiculous, but also unclear."

Pasko, as a journalist, collected information about nuclear contamination in Russia's Pacific Fleet -- information that was used by Japanese newspapers like "Asahi Sinbun" to expose environmental abuses by the Russian navy. But Pasko has repeatedly asserted that he never passed militarily sensitive information to the Japanese.

After his 1997 arrest, he was held in preventive detention for 20 months and eventually sentenced to three years in prison on the relatively minor charge of "abuse of office." He was immediately released under an amnesty law, but in November 2000, the Military Collegium of the Russian Supreme Court canceled the decision and called for new hearings. Tkachenko calls the latest hearing and sentencing an FSB "conspiracy."

"I believe that [Pasko's case is] a plot [organized by] the FSB. [The FSB] has always put pressure on the court, to force it to make such a decision. [The FSB] wanted, at any cost, for Pasko to be accused of something. It is a plot among the FSB, the military prosecutors, and the court."

Pasko's trial is not Russia's only espionage case. Last week, 55-year-old Valentin Moiseev, a former diplomat convicted of spying for South Korea, lost his appeal to the Russian Supreme Court. Moiseev has been in jail since his arrest three years ago. Still another case is that of Igor Sutyagin, a 36-year-old military researcher at the Moscow-based U.S. and Canada Studies Institute. Sutyagin was arrested in 1999 and charged with high treason for passing state secrets to the U.S. He has been in jail ever since.

Some analysts believe that these three cases signal a gradual swing back toward Cold War-style politics and note that since being elected president, Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB agent, seems to have given a green light to espionage prosecutions. Russian parliamentary deputy and human rights advocate Sergei Kovalev told RFE/RL that all these espionage cases are part of a sad political trend.

"Look how many trials are going on now and how many trials have just finished. All of them are espionage trials. Take the Pasko [case]. Have you ever in the world seen a spy who under his name openly published information from his spy investigations? The same is true for the Sutyagin or Moiseev cases. Look how our [supposedly] independent judicial system works. No judicial reform will change this sad situation. The reason is very simple -- this is a political order, and a political trend. And this is very sad."

Pasko's lawyer, Tkachenko, says the journalist intends to appeal his case until a fair sentence is delivered. Pasko's wife Galina says that in the meantime, her husband is spending his time in jail studying and keeping himself busy. Her husband, she says, "has not lost the hope that someday in the future he may assert his rights."

(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)