St. Petersburg, 21 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- After almost three years of criminal investigation racked by controversy and international criticism, the case of environmentalist and former Russian Navy captain Aleksander Nikitin went to court yesterday in St. Petersburg.
Nikitin is being charged with high treason and passing alleged military secrets about the Northern Fleet's nuclear waste disposal practices to activists from the Norwegian environmental organization, Bellona.
Genri Reznik, one of three lawyers representing Nikitin, says, "The Nikitin case is one by which our children will judge the state of Russia's legal system at the end of the 20th century."
If convicted, Nikitin, who co-authored a 1995 environmental report for Bellona, may face up to 20 years in jail. Nikitin's accuser, the Federal Security Service (FSB), which is the successor to the KGB, arrested him in February 1996.
Most major Western and Russian media were in attendance at the opening of the trial. Also present were some 20 independent observers from various legal and human rights organizations, as well as the U.S. Consul in St. Petersburg, Thomas Lynch.
After procedural formalities, the trial produced its first sensation when presiding judge Sergei Golets ruled that the hearing will be closed to the public in order to protect Russian state secrets.
Reznik told RFE/RL, "I doubt that state secrets will be discussed in this courtroom. We are law-abiding citizens, but the defense is still going to continue to inform the media about what has taken place in court."
Reznik added that there is no reason for pessimism and, in his words, "We will use all our knowledge and ability so that an innocent man walks free."
Over the past three years, prosecutors have charged Nikitin with treason seven times. He was imprisoned under the latest charges for 10 months in appalling conditions and says he has since been subject to almost constant harassment from people he alleges are FSB officials.
His lawyers have not been allowed to see the Defense Ministry decrees on which charges against him are based. They are said to be secret and were enacted only after Nikitin was accused.
Diederik Lohman, the Moscow director of the international group Human Rights Watch, says, "In no Western country could law enforcement officials get away with the number of mistakes made. When you read the indictments, they are so badly written it seems that the officials are legally illiterate." Lohman added that Nikitin presented material in his report that can be found in public sources.
Nikitin told RFE/RL last Thursday, "For the past three years, I have been asking them (the FSB) to tell me precisely what secrets have been revealed, but they have never told me."
According to Nikitin, his acquittal would not just mean his freedom but would weaken the power of Russian security officials. He said an acquittal would be "yet another small victory for democratic forces in Russia. It would be a big blow against the Russian secret service and against its system and methods."
Nikitin added that the FSB targeted him because it wanted to put an end to the work on Russian soil of a foreign organization that was looking into areas, such as the defense sector, that the FSB considers its own.
"But," Nikitin added, "they also wanted to make an example out of me, someone who held a secret clearance previously, in order to send a message that if you are an ex-officer you should not work with foreigners."
Bellona's research into the Northern Fleet's nuclear waste disposal began in 1990. For many years it enjoyed cooperation from the Russian Navy and the government of the Murmansk region, which borders Norway and the Arctic Ocean.
The Russian Navy's nuclear waste storage practices in that region have been described by Bellona as "a Chornobyl in slow motion."
Bellona says that the Murmansk region contains 274 nuclear reactors, perhaps the world's greatest concentration of reactors, many of which are on submarines. It also says that the region contains some 11 nuclear dump sites.
Nikitin joined the Norwegian group in early 1995. In the early 1990s, the 46-year-old Nikitin worked as a chief inspector in nuclear safety for the Ministry of Defense, where he had top secret clearance.
Relations between Bellona and Russian authorities took a turn for the worse in October 1995, when the Murmansk offices of Bellona were raided by the FSB, and their documents confiscated.
Nikitin said, "I never thought it would come to all this. Nor do I not compare myself to a dissident." Nevertheless, he has been named Amnesty International's first "prisoner of conscience" in Russia since the collapse of the USSR.
Human rights advocates have cast Nikitin's trial as a potentially influential landmark case in Russia's struggle to shake off its totalitarian past and develop into a society based on the rule of law.
Stephen Kass, an environmental lawyer from New York who is also a board member of Human Rights Watch, says that the Nikitin case "will be the single most important indicator of whether Russia is a society approaching the rule of law, or whether the successor to the KGB is calling the shots."
The trial may last one to two months. The court can make one of three decisions--- acquittal, conviction, or sending the case back for further investigation.
The defense is worried that Judge Golets is being subjected to FSB pressure. Golets denied that pressure is being exerted on him, and a spokesman for the FSB, who would only identify himself as Igor, said that his agency is not trying to influence the court.
Others disagree, however. Yuri Nestorov, a State Duma deputy from the liberal party Yabloko says, "The FSB is certainly applying pressure on the court...This case is very important for the FSB and one they do not want to lose."
Despite the possibility of punishment, Nikitin and his colleagues from Bellona remain steadfast in their effort to prove his innocence. Nikitin said, "I do not want to take a guess at what might be the outcome of the case. But if the court obeys the law, there will be an acquittal."
Nikitin also said that he is determined to fight to the end. If he loses in St. Petersburg, he added, he will appeal the verdict to the Constitutional Court in Moscow and, if necessary, to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.
Frederic Hauge, Bellona's director, said during a press conference yesterday in Saint Petersburg that because of Nikitin's trial some people are now afraid to work on environmental issues in Russia.
Hauge added, "This case is important not just for Nikitin but for all of Russian society. This case is about human rights, the environment and free speech."
(John Varoli is a St. Petersburg-based journalist who contributes regularly to RFE/RL.)