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Russia: Jury Acquits Scientist Accused Of Spying

In a rare defeat for Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), a jury yesterday acquitted a scientist accused of spying for China. Valentin Danilov's vindication, following a three-year ordeal, heartened human rights activists and raised hopes that others who claim they have been unfairly targeted by the FSB may also see justice.

Prague, 30 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Yesterday's verdict by a Russian jury exonerating scientist Valentin Danilov of espionage and fraud charges came as a welcome surprise to both defense lawyers and human rights activists engaged in similar cases across the country.

Nearly three years after his arrest and 19 months spent in pre-trial detention, Danilov was cleared of charges that he tried to sell China secret research material on the workings of space satellites.

Danilov had argued that the charges, brought by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) -- a successor agency to the KGB -- had no merit as the information he sold to a Chinese organization was based on open scientific research and therefore not a state secret.

Danilov, the former head of a thermophysics institute in Krasnoyarsk, said the FSB had behaved like its feared predecessor, considering any contact between Russian scientists and foreign colleagues to be a crime. But Danilov, who could have faced 12 years in prison if convicted, said the FSB "forgot that Russia is not the USSR any more" and he praised the role of the jury in acquitting him.

Moscow defense lawyer Anna Savitskaya says she was overjoyed by the verdict. She tells RFE/RL Danilov's acquittal could set a precedent for other Russian scientists on trial for similar alleged crimes, including her own client Igor Sutyagin.

"I am defending Igor Sutyagin and this verdict was very important for our own case . When I found out about the acquittal, I was filled with joy. I think it shows we made the right decision by opting for a jury trial, because it is namely a jury that can be objective in such cases," Savitskaya said.

Sutyagin, whose case has dragged on for over four years, has become something of a 'cause celebre' in Russia, which has seen the arrest and trial in recent years of several other academics, scientists, and journalists, charged with espionage by the FSB.

Among the most famous are military reporter Grigorii Pasko, sentenced in 2001 to four years in jail for passing sensitive information to the Japanese media; navy captain turned environmentalist Aleksandr Nikitin, acquitted of treason by Russia's Supreme Court after a four-year battle to clear his name; and former diplomat Valentin Moiseev, who has filed a case before the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights following his release from prison after serving time for espionage.

Sutyagin himself was an analyst at the prestigious Institute of the USA and Canada when he was arrested by FSB agents in November 1999 and charged with treason. The specific counts against Sutyagin are classified but leaked reports say he is accused of selling confidential information to foreign intelligence officials during business trips to Europe. Sutyagin vehemently denies the accusation and says he is the victim of an FSB campaign to discourage him and his colleagues from consorting with foreigners. Sutyagin's trial began in November.

In choosing to put her client's fate in the hands of a jury, Savitskaya is exercising an option that, ironically, was made available in 2002 thanks to judicial reforms initiated by former FSB head and current Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Savitskaya says the Danilov acquittal confirms her feeling that ordinary citizens tend to be more objective than professional judges.

"Jurors are independent people. They consider a case according to the facts. The look at the evidence presented by both sides and consider which side has the most convincing proof. Judges, in spite of whatever personal beliefs they may have -- they may believe the prosecution, for instance, has not presented convincing evidence -- but because they are part of the system and because they do not want to challenge the system they will deliver a verdict that the system demands," Savitskaya said.

Yurii Ryzhov, a member of the Moscow-based Scientists Defense Committee, which has taken up Sutygin's cause as well as that of others charged with espionage by the FSB, agrees.

"I think that protests by the Committee for the Defense of Scientists played a role, as well as testimony by real experts -- not just those appointed by the FSB -- and also the fact that the case was heard by a jury. It is harder to influence a jury through the vertical levers of power," Ryzhov said.

According to Savitskaya, Russians' overwhelming popular support for Putin does not translate into love of the FSB, despite Putin's lifelong association with the security organization and its antecedent the KGB. That is why she does not believe jurors who are pro-Putin will automatically favor the FSB's case if the evidence to convict an alleged spy is lacking -- as demonstrated yesterday in Krasnoyarsk.

"People may support Putin but I believe that most people like him because they see him as a strong leader. It's not that they see the FSB standing behind him and that because they like Putin, therefore they like the FSB. People just like having a tsar. They see that Putin, in their opinion, is a strong leader who, through certain reforms, can set things right in the country. But I don't believe that people just identify him with the FSB," Savitskaya said.

Sutyagin's trial began in November and should be the next high-profile test for Russia's brand-new jury system. But the proceedings have been adjourned several times, for a variety of reasons -- from an outbreak of hepatitis at Sutyagin's detention facility to requests for more time by the prosecution.

Savitskaya says the powers-that-be may have a hand in the delays, but she believes that ultimately, the jury system will vindicate her client too.

"Everything is being drawn out, it's unclear why. We believe that this long break didn't happen just by chance. It seems someone is pulling strings, we don't know who. And it's unpleasant. But we are convinced truth is on our side and we are convinced we will win out in the end, if of course the jury is not pressured. That is our only fear. But I, as an optimist, believe that it is much harder to influence jury members than a single judge," Savitskaya said.

As for Danilov, despite yesterday's optimism, his case may not yet be over. Prosecutors have vowed to appeal the verdict in the Russian Supreme Court.

(RFE/RL's Sophie Lambroschini contributed to this report from Moscow.)