The trial of Igor Sutyagin, a 38-year-old arms researcher accused of treason, is due to open in Moscow tomorrow following jury selection. Ironically, despite Sutyagin having spent four years in pretrial detention, his case is being looked at as a test for jury trials -- seen as a key improvement to the country's harsh judicial system.
Moscow, 10 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Igor Sutyagin, a Russian academic and accused spy, will face a 12-member jury beginning tomorrow as the latest chapter in the marathon criminal case against him gets under way.
Trials decided by a jury, instead of the traditional three-judge team, are still a novelty in Russia and are being progressively introduced throughout the country. They are perceived as a humanizing improvement to the country's often harsh judicial practices. But Sutyagin's four-year detention in various prisons is seen as exceeding even the harshest of Russia's pretrial custody practices.
Sergei Pashin is a former judge, the author of Russia's first post-Soviet criminal legislation, and a promoter of jury trials. Pashin says Sutiagin made the right choice by asking for a jury trial. "Right now, juries acquit 10 percent [of defendants] and ordinary courts acquit 0.70 percent of [those accused]. So his chances are 20 times higher than in front of an ordinary court," he said. "A jury is more honest, more careful concerning proof. [As a result,] the quality of the investigation is usually better than in an ordinary court."
An academic who specialized in arms-control issues, Sutyagin was working for the prestigious Institute of USA and Canada Studies when he was arrested in November 1999 and charged with treason.
Officially, the charges against Sutyagin are classified. But reports say he is accused of selling confidential information during trips throughout Europe to two foreigners working under the cover of a consultancy in Britain called Alternative Futures. That consultancy was allegedly set up as a front organization for the intelligence service of one of the NATO countries.
Sutyagin denies all the charges. He explains that while he did work for the consultancy, the work was done on the basis of a legal contract and that he only provided information that had previously appeared in public sources.
A first court decision in December 2001 in Kaluga, where Sutyagin lived, stopped short of conviction but ordered him kept in custody while the Federal Security Service (FSB) was ordered to conduct an additional investigation.
One of Sutyagin's lawyers, Anna Stavitskaya, recalled how his detention has dragged on: "The first investigation lasted a year. Then the first court case lasted a year in Kaluga. Then the case was returned to the [prosecutor's office] for collecting more information. So the file went here and there and that took another half a year. Then the second investigation lasted another year. Then it took us another eight months to study the case. That's how it ended up that [Sutyagin] has been jailed and jailed."
Stavitskaya says the state has never presented any compelling reasons to keep Sutyagin in such long pretrial detention. She notes that one of Vladimir Putin's first "causes" while he was still prime minister was the condemnation of the practice by Russian prosecutors of routine pretrial detention. Subsequent judicial reforms appear to have made only slight improvements to the practice.
Stavitskaya says that, so far, Russian courts have shied away from issuing outright decisions against the security services. Although the Kaluga court concluded that the FSB had committed violations of criminal procedures, it still in effect decided against Sutyagin. "The meaning of the [court decision] is the following: Your rights have been violated, so why don't you spend another two years, or whatever it will take to finish this, in jail?" she said.
She says the court's decision was a compromise intended not to anger the authorities, which would mean the judge could lose his job. She hopes a jury trial will guarantee more independence. "We are really counting on it because you don't have to be a psychic to know that an ordinary court will end with a conviction and a 4 1/2, five-year sentence, in addition to the four that he has already spent in jail," she said.
Sutyagin's case is considered part of the "spymania" that swept through Russia's law-enforcement community -- that is, the hunt for spies in the country's well-informed and independent-minded scientific and journalistic circles.
The term "spymania" first came up in regard to the cases of officer Aleksandr Nikitin and journalist Grigorii Pasko. Both cases dealt with accusations of serious violations of environmental safety principles by the Russian Navy. After years of fighting in the courts, Nikitin and Pasko were both acquitted of treason. Pasko, however, was found guilty of abuse of office.
Aleksandr Petrov, a researcher on the Sutyagin case for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch, says those and other cases have had a chilling effect on the work of journalists and researchers in Russia. "More than 10 people have been or are still in a similar situation. The series of court cases influence public opinion in the country because of the so-called 'chilling effect.' [Because of] this cold shower [effect], a researcher or journalist who is working on an issue touching upon the law-enforcement organs or the FSB, in particular, will not first think about how to bring the facts to the reader, but how to avoid ending up in the same situation as all these people," he said.
Petrov believes that, in the end, the trend of such investigations and trials dragging on for years will paralyze exchanges of ideas on key issues, such as disarmament and weapons of mass destruction.