Accessibility links

Breaking News

Russian Scientist Danilov Walks Free After Decade In Jail For Espionage

Physicist Valentin Danilov served eight years of a 14-year sentence. He had previously been held in detention before and during his trial on espionage charges.
Physicist Valentin Danilov served eight years of a 14-year sentence. He had previously been held in detention before and during his trial on espionage charges.
Russian scientist Valentin Danilov has walked free after a decade in jail on charges of spying for China.

After his release on parole in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk on November 24, Danilov, 66, said that he regarded himself as a political prisoner because the information he passed on was declassified.

Danilov was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2004 following a high-profile, three-year legal saga that saw him fully acquitted before a second trial resulted in a conviction on charges of passing state secrets to China. His sentence was later reduced by one year.

The surprise decision to release him early was hailed by rights campaigners and fellow scientists, who say his case was politically motivated and believe he should never have been jailed in the first place.

Danilovhas fervently maintained his innocence.

READ Valentin Danilov's prison blog for RFE/RL's Russian Service (in English)

His lawyer Yelena Yevmenova said that once out of prison, he would likely seek to clear his name.

"My impression is that despite his long jail term, he has lost neither the interest nor the desire to be acquitted," Yevmenova said.

But Yevmenova said he would first need time to readjust to life outside prison.

"He needs to spend some time with his family, to get used to life outside [prison]," Yevmenova said. "He was in detention for many years. During that time his granddaughter grew up [and] went to school, and many other events happened in his family that he needs to process."

Yevmenova said Danilov would spend the remainder of his probation time either in Novosibirsk, where his wife Tamara lives, or closer to his daughter in Krasnoyarsk.

Russian 'Spy-Mania'

Danilov is being released three years early from his high-security prison in the Krasnoyarsk region for good behavior and health reasons. It is unclear what ails him, although he wrote in a blog for RFE/RL's Russian Service that he was frail and had lost most of his teeth in prison.

Danilov's case was one of a dozen espionage trials to take place in the early 2000s during Vladimir Putin's first term as president.

The cases were widely denounced as a "spy-mania" aimed chiefly at deterring Russian academics from forming ties with other countries.

As with many other Russian scientists, low wages and a lack of domestic demand had persuaded Danilov to work under contract with foreigners.

Valentin Danilov (middle row, second from right) and other inmates in their Siberian prison (undated)
Valentin Danilov (middle row, second from right) and other inmates in their Siberian prison (undated)
The director of the Thermo-Physics Center at Krasnoyarsk State Technical University at the time of his arrest, Danilov claimed he had received official clearance to collaborate with a Chinese firm on building equipment designed to model the impact of the space environment on satellites.

During his court trial, he displayed documents seemingly proving that the data he passed to the Chinese were declassified and available from public sources.

State Secrets?

At the time, a string of human rights campaigners and scientists in Russia and abroad had called for Danilov's acquittal, including Russian veteran activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva and Nobel Physics Prize laureate Vitaly Ginzburg.

Both are members of Russia's Committee to Protect Scientists, a group created more than a decade ago to defend scientists targeted by espionage and treason charges. Both said the information Danilov gave to China was available in "school textbooks."

Alekseyeva -- who befriended Danilov after her committee helped secure his first release in 2002 -- said she believed his professions of innocence due to both a lack of convincing evidence against him and his candid personality.

"He came across as a very sincere, trusting person," Alekseyeva said, "but this played a fateful role in his case, because he may not have taken all the possible precautions to shield himself from such a twist of fate."

Alekseyeva said Danilov's personable character earned him the respect of both prison guards and inmates, who quickly nicknamed him "Professor."

But the letters he sent her from prison, she said, showed that his inability to practice science deeply demoralized him.

"He's a born scientist. His head is always brimming with ideas that he wants to put into practice," Alekseyeva said. "Back then, he was obsessed with an idea he had developed that consisted in recovering the large amounts of heat released by aluminum-producing factories that operate in Krasnoyarsk and elsewhere to heat cities. He euphorically tried to explain his scheme to me, but of course I couldn't understand any of it."

Dashed Hopes

His chances of reviving his career, however, appear slim. Most scientists who served time for espionage have been unable to find jobs in their field in Russia.

While Danilov was legally eligible for parole, his early release is seen by some as a Kremlin attempt to appease public opinion over a controversial new law broadening the definition of treason.

Opponents say the new legislation will put almost anyone who has contact with foreigners at risk and could be abused to silence critics.

Putin signed the bill into law on November 14 -- one day after a court ordered Danilov's release.

With contributions from RFE/RL's Russian Service