Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russia: Supreme Court Acquits Activist Nikitin

Russian anti-nuclear activist and former naval officer Aleksandr Nikitin was exonerated today of espionage charges, ending a high-profile, four-and-a-half-year case. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini has the story.

Moscow, 13 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- It has taken 13 hearings and almost five years for activist Aleksandr Nikitin to finally win acquittal on espionage charges for his role in bringing the world's attention to the problem of nuclear waste in the Arctic Ocean.

In a final ruling today, the presidium of the Russian Supreme Court confirmed the acquittal, putting an end to a case that had aroused concern around the world about Russia's commitment to the rule of law.

Nikitin originally won acquittal in a St. Petersburg court last year, but, in an ironic twist, prosecutors appealed the acquittal on the basis that Nikitin's rights had been violated -- by the prosecution itself.

At the time, the U.S. State Department said the appeal had "the appearance of political manipulation."

Speaking to RFE/RL's Russian service today, Nikitin was ecstatic but wary:

"I feel great. My mood is terrific. In my soul, I was counting on this decision. I wouldn't say it came as a surprise. But we were very careful regarding the trial because we knew that a [different] decision would have been in the interest of certain politicians close to the president. These people resisted, they resisted to the last. Today, the final end was put [to this affair]."

Nikitin, a former captain in the Russian navy's Northern Fleet, was accused in 1996 of high treason after he made public information about radioactive pollution in the Arctic Sea through the Norwegian environmental organization Bellona. The Federal Security Service (FSB), successor to the KGB, had raided the Bellona's Murmansk office at the end of 1995, just kilometers away from where aging nuclear submarines were rusting away, leaking waste into the ocean.

The defense argued that all the information used by Nikitin came from public -- not confidential -- sources and that retroactive secrecy laws were being used as a basis for prosecution. Nikitin nevertheless spent almost a year of the five-year period in jail.

In his most recent statements, Nikitin warned about potential dangers posed by the "Kursk" submarine that sank last month in the Barents Sea.

Commenting today on the ruling, the head of the Glasnost Defense Fund, Aleksei Simonov, says the Nikitin case fits a pattern of law-enforcement efforts aimed at limiting information on environment issues.

He says the high court will be tested again when it hears a similar case against Grigory Pasko, a journalist in Russia's Far East. Pasko has been accused of treason for allegedly helping to pass secret documents related to environmental hazards in the Vladivostok-based Pacific Fleet to a Japanese television station.

Simonov said Nikitin's ordeal shows what it takes to tell the truth in Russia: tough nerves and real conviction. He says such people still exist in Russia.