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Russian Legal System Promotes Abuse of Civil Liberties

(Washington, DC--February 13, 2002) A former Russian naval officer told the audience at a recent RFE/RL briefing that the Russian judicial system is structured to make it easy for elements of the Russian government to bring treason charges against its own citizens.

Alexander Nikitin, a retired naval Captain who now works as a civil liberties advocate, was arrested by the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, in 1995 and charged with treason after the Norwegian-based Bellona Foundation published a report Nikitin co-authored on the risks of radioactive pollution from the Russian Northern Fleet. Nikitin was eventually acquitted of all charges in 2000 by the Presidium of the Russian Supreme Court, after five years of prosecution.

Nikitin said that the current legal system is fundamentally flawed and must be changed, since "no unified concept of 'State secret' exists [in Russia] allowing each government ministry to have its own definition." For instance, at the time he was charged, the Russian Ministry of Defense included over 800 actions which qualified as treason on its secret list. Nikitin explained that as a result of his own case, the Ministry of Defense has been ordered by the Court to publish its secret list and reduce the number of acts which could qualify as treason. Other Russian government ministries, Nikitin said, have their own as-yet unpublished lists that define treason against the state.

Nikitin called the current treason case against Grigory Pasko, a military journalist convicted of giving Japanese television reporters film of a Russian naval tanker dumping radioactive waste into the Sea of Japan, another example of the courts presuming the accused is guilty even though there is no evidence to support the charges. Nikitin claimed that there had been "a prior secret deal between the FSB and the military court system" to convict Pasko, "because the FSB could not afford to lose another scandalous case."

However, Nikitin expects that Pasko's 4.5-year prison sentence will be reduced on appeal as a compromise between Russia's Supreme Court and the FSB, allowing the intelligence service to successfully label Pasko as a traitor and continue its effort to instill fear throughout civil society yet providing the appearance of a reforming judicial system.