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Russia: Military Journalist Pasko Loses Appeal

  • Jeremy Bransten

The military branch of Russia's Supreme Court yesterday upheld a four-year prison sentence against journalist Grigorii Pasko. Pasko's latest conviction dates from December, when a military court in the city of Vladivostok pronounced him guilty of spying for Japan. Pasko's lawyers and human-rights groups in Russia, Europe, and the United States decry Pasko's conviction as a political reprisal for his drawing attention to the Russian Pacific Fleet's illegal dumping of nuclear waste at sea. They now hope the case will be taken up by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Prague, 26 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian military journalist Grigorii Pasko lost his appeal before the military branch of Russia's Supreme Court yesterday, when judges confirmed his four-year prison sentence for spying.

The judgment closes another chapter in Pasko's so far unsuccessful battle to clear his name, which has continued since his original arrest in 1997. But his lawyers say they will not give up and will pursue the case with the Supreme Court's Presidium, which could still overturn the conviction, and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Pasko's case has garnered so much attention, both in Russia and abroad, because it is seen as a litmus test for freedom of speech, the freedom of journalists to pursue their work, and the independence of the Russian judiciary.

In 1997, agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB) originally arrested Pasko on treason charges. They accused him of taking notes at a meeting of naval officers, allegedly regarding secret maneuvers, with the intention of passing them to the Japanese media. His lawyers said the treason charge was only a pretext. As a journalist, Pasko had collected information about the Russian Pacific Fleet's illegal dumping of nuclear waste at sea, information publicized by the Japanese media, angering Moscow.

After 20 months of preventive detention, Pasko was sentenced to three years in prison on a lesser charge of "abuse of office." Russia's Supreme Court subsequently amnestied Pasko, but he appealed to clear his name. The result was new treason charges, which earned him a four-year prison sentence, which he is currently serving in a Vladivostok jail.

In their rejection of Pasko's appeal yesterday, military Supreme Court judges did strike down two of the main charges against him. Judges found that Pasko did not illegally attend a naval command meeting. They also struck down charges that he had illegal contact with foreigners.

Aleksei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Fund, a prominent Moscow-based human-rights organization, told RFE/RL this should have prompted judges to overturn Pasko's conviction immediately, since as a result, the guilty verdict, and Pasko's four-year prison sentence, rests only on supposition. "Pasko has been convicted for having the alleged intention of handing over notes he had taken to some foreign agents. To convict someone on the basis of intentions is a crime against common sense and the law because there is a presumption of innocence, and therefore intentions cannot be a basis for conviction, especially because no proof of any intentions has ever been presented in this case," Simonov said.

Simonov, who attended yesterday's court session, said the fact that the military judges kept Pasko's conviction intact, despite striking down much of its underpinning, only proves that Russia's system of military justice lacks impartiality. "Military justice is a power structure ruled from the top that existed long before [President Vladimir] Putin came to power. It has nothing to do with justice. It is the fulfilling of military orders by a military court. In this case, the military order was to convict Pasko. The Supreme Court's Military Collegium fulfilled it, just as it fulfilled orders the two previous times when I had occasion to attend their proceedings," Simonov said.

Aleksandr Petrov, deputy director of the Moscow chapter of Human Rights Watch, agreed. He told RFE/RL the judges' decision lacks sense and fairness. "I consider the court's decision to be unlawful. It contradicts the law, fairness, and simply common sense, and I wouldn't be surprised if Pasko's lawyers will go further, by turning to the Presidium of the Supreme Court. And I think the case can very well end up before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg," Petrov said.

Several months ago, Pasko's lawyers filed a petition before the European Court of Human Rights. Now that Pasko's appeal has been rejected by the Russian judges, they hope the case will be taken up in Strasbourg.

The European court does not deal in questions of guilt or innocence, but it does rule on whether a defendant has received a fair trial. A judgment in favor of Pasko would put the Russian justice system's ability to provide fair trials under international scrutiny.

Simonov of the Glasnost Defense Fund said it is time for the international community to reconsider its involvement and investment in Russian judicial reform. "International organizations have invested millions of dollars in Russian judicial reform. But in whom are they investing these millions of dollars? Who are they dealing with if the Supreme Court, with which they have been holding talks on reform, negates justice through its own practice?" Simonov said.

The Presidium of the Russian Supreme Court, which has no ties to the military, can still overturn Pasko's conviction. Presidium judges confirmed the acquittal, in 2000, of Aleksandr Nikitin. Nikitin was another journalist with a military past and links to foreign environmentalists who was repeatedly tried and imprisoned on charges of treason, but who ultimately did find justice in Russia's courts.

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