The military branch of Russia's Supreme Court this week handed jailed Russian journalist Grigorii Pasko his second victory in two days when it overturned a Soviet-era order on state secrets that served as a basis for his conviction. The Military Collegium of the Supreme Court threw out a Soviet-era order that banned military officers with access to secrets from having any contact with foreigners. A day earlier, the collegium struck down a secret order defining what constitutes a secret. But for Pasko to be released from his four-year sentence, judges will have to find that the two rulings offer grounds to overturn his treason conviction. That remains uncertain, as does the fate of others facing similar predicaments.
Prague, 15 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Human rights advocates in Russia are hailing the Supreme Court's decision to overturn two Defense Ministry orders that gave military judges broad latitude to prosecute people for treason.
One order banned military officers with access to classified information from having contact with foreigners. The other allowed the Defense Ministry to keep secret lists of what constitutes classified information, and was known as Order Number 55. The two orders formed the underpinning of the government's case against military journalist Grigorii Pasko.
Pasko was originally detained on treason charges in 1997 after the Federal Security Service (FSB) accused him of taking notes at a meeting of naval officers, allegedly regarding secret maneuvers, with the intention of passing them to the Japanese media. But his lawyers said the treason charge was only a pretext. Pasko, as a journalist, had collected information about the Russian Pacific Fleet's illegal dumping of nuclear waste at sea -- information that was publicized by the Japanese media, angering Moscow.
After 20 months of preventive detention, Pasko was sentenced to three years in prison on a lesser charge of "abuse of office."
Russia's Supreme Court subsequently granted Pasko amnesty, but he appealed to clear his name. The result were fresh charges of treason, which earned him a four-year prison sentence last month, which he is currently serving in a Vladivostok jail.
Pasko's appeal is due to be heard in about a month. Moscow lawyer Karina Moskalenko tells RFE/RL that this week's rulings considerably raise his chances of getting a favorable hearing.
"The highest court in the land has abolished, has pronounced Order Number 55, to be an invalid basis for initiating any legal action. And it was this order which regulated the question of state secrets. And since this order has been judicially invalidated, it raises the question of the unprosecutability of Pasko's actions in any circumstance. And I consider this judgment to be an accomplishment by his lawyers."
Prosecutors say that even if Order Number 55 has now been ruled invalid, it does not alter Pasko's conviction, which took place when the rule on secrets was still being applied. Moskalenko calls this a specious argument.
"If the judges had said the order was applicable up to a certain date, it would have been strange, but nevertheless such a decision would have had to be respected. But the judges ruled that the document has no legal weight. And why does it have no legal weight? It has no legal weight because it was never registered with the Justice Ministry, and this is a basic requirement. And because of this, it cannot be applied in any circumstance -- going back to any time -- until it is registered with the ministry."
Simply put, Russian Supreme Court judges ruled that Order Number 55 is invalid now and always was. It cannot and could not serve as the basis for an indictment. This, say legal experts, could have a bearing on several other cases affecting Russian journalists, scientists, and a former diplomat -- all of whom have been charged by the FSB with treason for allegedly passing classified information to foreigners under the provisions of Order Number 55.
Even before this week's rulings, Moskalenko had filed a petition on behalf of Pasko and her own client, former diplomat Valentin Moiseev, with the European Court of Human Rights. Moiseev, like Pasko, was convicted by a military court of treason and sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for giving a South Korean colleague materials deemed classified by the FSB. The material in question was a previously published report on Russian foreign policy, written by Moiseev.
Moskalenko says Russia's system of closed military courts does not serve the cause of justice and should be abolished.
"The system of military courts is a system of courts bearing allegiance to a specific ministry which does not fall into the category of dispassionate, impartial courts. You can have great lawyers working in those courts. They can have great legal knowledge and experience. But this is a system of courts bearing allegiance to a specific ministry, which I believe must be rooted out from Russia."
Moskalenko says she hopes a European Court judgment could help to make this argument: "I understand that the European Court of Justice will not rule that Grigorii Pasko is not guilty or that Valentin Moiseev is not guilty. This goes beyond the framework of their judicial mandate. The European Court does not deal in questions of guilt or innocence. But if, according to a decision by the European Court, a person is recognized as a victim of an unfair trial, then you understand that a verdict calling him a spy will become rather unconvincing. And that is what my representatives are hoping to achieve."
Moscow lawyer Anna Savitskaya has her fingers crossed that her colleague will succeed. It could help to set her own client, researcher Igor Sutyagin, free.
"I very much hope that this is a decisive moment. We all hope that this will have a strong influence on all these 'spy cases' -- if, of course, the FSB doesn't think up something new, because it's very easy to think up something new, in response to a court decision. But for the moment, the document which served as the basis for these secrecy orders no longer exists."
Sutyagin, who had been working as a military technology analyst for the Russian Academy of Sciences, was arrested in October 1999 after the FSB accused him selling state secrets to foreign agents.
At the time, Sutyagin was cooperating with two Canadian universities on research concerning civilian-military relations in post-communist countries. He also received payment for some of his articles from a British consulting firm. Police found no classified military documents in his possession upon his arrest. In fact, Sutyagin's only sources for his research was material already published in newspapers, scientific journals, and magazines. But thanks to his considerable analytical skills, the FSB maintains that Sutyagin reached conclusions which in themselves represent state secrets.
Perhaps the best-known recent treason case in Russia before Pasko's was the trial of former Northern Fleet captain-turned-journalist Aleksandr Nikitin, who was finally acquitted by Russian judges in 2000 after repeated trials and imprisonment on charges of treason. Nikitin's "crime" was documenting, in cooperation with the Norwegian environmental group Bellona, nuclear-waste dumping by Russia's Northern Fleet in the Arctic Ocean.
Lawyer Anna Savitskaya says that, despite this week's victories, the battle for justice for clients like hers will be a long one in Russia. The FSB appears intent on limiting its citizens' contacts with foreigners, especially when it could result in an exchange of information embarrassing to Moscow. The existing legal system makes it relatively easy to prosecute cases brought by the agency.
"It's very hard in our country to count on anything because the system is skewed toward the accuser, so we can only count on our strengths, our knowledge and ability. And we count on a positive verdict as a result. We think that's how it should be. But what will happen in actuality? I don't know."
Lawyers like Savitskaya and Moskalenko say they are committed to keeping their clients' cases in the public eye, with the hope that, eventually, justice will prevail.
(RFE/RL's Francesca Mereu contributed to this story.)