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Russia: Amnesty Hails Nikitin Court Referral As Victory

London, 4 November 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Amnesty International (AI) calls the recent decision by a Saint Petersburg judge to refer the case against environmentalist Aleksandr Nikitin back to the Procurator's Office for additional investigation "a significant victory."

But the London-based human-rights group is continuing to ask that all charges against Nikitin be dropped. It says he could still face up to 20 years in prison for what Russian authorities call treason, but AI calls peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.

Nikitin, a former captain in the Russian Navy, was arrested by the Federal Security Service (FSB) in February 1996. His arrest came after he had contributed to a report by a Norwegian environmental group, Bellona, on the risks of radioactive contamination from accidents with nuclear submarines in Russia's Northern Fleet. AI adopted him as what it calls a "prisoner of conscience" after he was charged with revealing state secrets, a charge he denies.

Mariana Katzarova, AI's researcher on the Russian Federation, yesterday welcomed last week's decision by City Court Judge Sergei Golets to refer his case back for additional investigation:

"We consider it to be a victory for Nikitin and his defense lawyers because in his decision, the judge was motivated by the fact that the FSB's accusations, the indictment against Nikitin is too vague, and the evidence brought against him is insufficient."

The judge's ruling instructed the FSB to specify exactly what information in the Bellona report that it considers to be secret. The FSB has at least a month to comply with the ruling.

Nikitin's defense lawyer, Yuri Schmidt, who says there is no valid legal foundation for the charges against him, said at the trial hearing last week that "there are no more facts to find in this case."

AI agrees that another round of investigations into the case will yield nothing new. It says the case has now been under investigation for three years and the prosecution has not managed --and never will manage-- to come up with an indictment with a tenable judicial foundation.

Katzarova, who is of Bulgarian origin, says Judge Golets has been "very courageous" in referring the case back, given that it was brought by the successor agency to the former KGB. But she is worried that Nikitin may now be left in what she calls "an endless legal limbo."

"Basically, the theory is that the whole trial, the whole procedure, may get into a vicious circle. The judge will be returning every new indictment to the FSB back for additional investigation. And the FSB will be coming up with the same indictment again and again. Now the FSB, of course, has the choice to drop the case and, hopefully, it will do that. We haven't changed AI's position. We still believe Nikitin should be unconditionally released."

Nikitin was held in pre-trial detention for some 10 months until he was released in December 1996. But the charges against him remained and, pending trial, he was officially restricted to the Saint Petersburg city limits. That means he is still under arrest.

AI argues that Nikitin's situation violates both his constitutional right to have the charges against him settled by a court of justice and his rights under international law to be tried within a reasonable time.

Bill Bowring, a human-rights lawyer who teaches at Britain's University of Essex, observed the trial proceedings on behalf of AI to ensure that legal procedures complied with international standards.