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Russia: Environmental Journalist Freed From Prison

  • Gregory Feifer

Russian environmental whistle-blower Grigorii Pasko was released on parole today after more than two years in prison. He had been jailed for allegedly intending to pass sensitive information to a Japanese journalist, an accusation supporters say was a pretext for punishing him for reporting on environmental abuses by the Russian Navy. Pasko has maintained his innocence all along, refusing to be considered for a presidential pardon last year. He now says he will continue to push for a full acquittal.

Moscow, 23 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A court in Russia's Far East today released military journalist Grigorii Pasko from prison on parole for good behavior after he had served over two-thirds of a four-year term.

Pasko, a former naval officer, was sentenced in December 2001 for illegally attending a meeting of high-ranking officers with the intention of passing on notes he took there to Japanese television.

Pasko, however, maintains he is innocent. After being freed, he told journalists in televised statements that he plans to continue fighting for a full acquittal. "We will strive for the full rehabilitation of my good name and do everything so that the criminal case [against me] is pronounced false, that is, what it really is in fact," Pasko said.

Pasko's high-profile case has coincided with several similar cases that critics of the government say indicate the Kremlin is trying to stifle dissent and muzzle the free press.

Human rights defenders and environmentalists say Pasko disclosed no state secrets. They claim prosecutors used a bogus charge to punish Pasko for reporting on environmental abuses, especially his disclosure that the navy might have illegally dumped radioactive waste into the Sea of Japan.

Pasko refused to be considered for a presidential pardon last year. He said accepting clemency would amount to admitting guilt.

Pasko was freed today following a standard court procedure in the Far East town of Ussuriisk -- where he was jailed -- after his lawyers filed a petition endorsed by his prison.

One of Pasko's lawyers, Genri Reznik, told RFE/RL that the release represents a victory but that his intention to fight for acquittal is a separate matter. "[The release] doesn't have anything to do with Pasko's rehabilitation. We are talking about an appeal of the sentence and the examination of the case in the presidium of the Supreme Court," Reznik said.

Pasko also intends to argue that his rights have been violated before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

Interfax meanwhile reported a Justice Ministry official as saying that prosecutors are considering a possible appeal of the decision to release the activist. Russian Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov later said it probably would not make sense to appeal the decision.

Pasko was first arrested by security agents in 1997 under charges of treason. He was acquitted of the charges in a 1999 trial -- held after he had already spent 20 months in prison -- but was then found guilty of abuse of office and released under a general amnesty. Pasko then appealed for a full acquittal.

Prosecutors simultaneously filed their own appeal, continuing to insist he had committed treason. He was found guilty in a second trial and sentenced to four years in prison.

Ivan Pavlov, another of Pasko's lawyers, said at a news conference today in the Far East city of Vladivostok that Pasko has been tenacious. "They questioned him for a whole month, asking him to admit his guilt in exchange for a guaranteed positive outcome in the trial. But Grigorii -- just as he had before, just like today in the courtroom -- did not admit any guilt, because he considers himself to be not guilty," Pavlov said.

International human rights groups have taken up Pasko's case, bringing it to the world's attention. Western governments and organizations such as New York's Committee to Protect Journalists have criticized his imprisonment, calling it unjust.

Rights defenders and free-speech advocates in Moscow applauded the decision to free the journalist but said justice would be served only with a full acquittal.

Among them is Tatyana Lokshina, executive director of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization. "We are very happy that [Pasko's petition] turned out like it did and welcome the courage of the judge who made the decision. Just yesterday -- as we were discussing with our colleagues -- the situation was unclear, and we were truly concerned that Grigorii Pasko wouldn't be released early," Lokshina said.

But Lokshina said the situation is still worrisome because of the possible appeal against the decision. She said Pasko's full acquittal is "absolutely necessary" in order to avoid his return to jail. "Yes, he was freed several months before the official end of his prison term. That's true, but it's not a victory. It's a very small step forward. And judging by everything that's going on, it will be necessary to defend that small step very seriously," Lokshina said.

Pasko, meanwhile, told journalists that he plans to continue his career in journalism.