Trial of Russian Scientist Provides First Test for New Constitution
Chemist tried for divulging military secrets, but under what set of laws?
THE trial of a jailed Russian scientist accused of divulging state secrets after he revealed that the Kremlin was secretly developing the world's most powerful chemical weapon could be the first real test of the country's new Constitution.Skip to next paragraph
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Vil Mirzayanov, the soft-spoken scientist whose whistle-blower activities made him the first high-profile dissident in President Boris Yeltsin's Russia, has been imprisoned since Jan. 27, when he dismissed his closed-door trial as unconstitutional and refused to testify.
In a letter to the Soviet-style three-judge panel trying his case, Mr. Mirzayanov wrote that he refused to be a ``willing accomplice to a criminal act that violates the basic laws of the Constitution of the Russian Federation.'' After boycotting the trial for two days, he was arrested for contempt and thrown in Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina prison.
The trial, which opened Jan. 6, resumed Feb. 3 after Mirzayanov agreed only to answer accusations that he revealed state secrets. Since then, he has been led handcuffed to and from the Moscow City Courthouse, shielded from view by militiamen cradling automatic weapons and flanked by police dogs.
`This is democracy?'
``If this is what `newly democratized' is all about, we should still be concerned about human rights in Russia,'' says Rachel Denber, spokeswoman for Helsinki Watch in Moscow. ``If this happened to Mirzayanov, it could happen to lots of people.''
A former chemist with the Moscow Scientific Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology, Mirzayanov co-authored an article in the weekly Moscow News in September 1992 alleging that Russia had violated international agreements by developing a lethal poison gas called Novichok. He repeated the allegations in a subsequent interview with the Baltimore Sun.
On Oct. 22, 1992, Mirzayanov was arrested and charged under Article 75 of the Criminal Code on State Secrets, an offense subject to up to eight years' imprisonment. He was released from custody on condition he not leave Russia before the trial. The Security Ministry, or former KGB, did not arrest co-author Lev Fyodorov because he never pledged not to reveal state secrets.
The defense says the prosecution violates Russia's Constitution, adopted in a nationwide referendum Dec. 12, because Mirzayanov is being tried under secret, unpublished laws. The list of what constitutes a state secret has itself not yet been published.
The defense also says the prosecution is based retroactively on a secret decree issued by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin six months after the article originally was published in Moscow News.
Will Englund, the Baltimore Sun reporter, has refused a subpoena to testify unless the trial is open. Mr. Englund was grilled in Moscow's Lefortovo Prison for two days by the former KGB last April after his interview with the two scientists was published.
On Feb. 4, President Yeltsin met with National Security Adviser Yuri Baturin to discuss the case, the Itar-Tass and Interfax news agencies reported. Yeltsin, whose office declined to comment, reportedly told Baturin he might invoke Article 6 of the Procedural Code to halt the proceedings, which states that charges against citizens may be dropped if ``circumstances change.'' In this case, that would be the adoption of the new Constitution, under which every citizen is entitled to ``seek, receive, transmit, compile, and distribute any information by any legal means.''
But Mirzayanov's supporters want the scientist to be acquitted, not simply to have the case dropped. ``Mirzayanov's case is the first test of the new Constitution,'' says human rights activist Andrei Mironov. ``All this is just a false pretext to hush up the case and give immunity to those who violated the Constitution, and what is more important, to leave intact the court system that produced this case.''
Last week, Prosecutor Leonid Pankratov requested a reinvestigation after two of three independent experts testified that Mirzayanov revealed no state secrets. But Mr. Mironov says that means that more experts would be asked to make judgments on the basis of secret laws they have never seen.
Yesterday, the court ruled to return the case for further investigation, putting Mirzayanov's fate in the hands of the prosecutor, rather than the former KGB. But the scientist remains in prison, and it is unclear how long the new investigation could last. ``It's a small victory,'' Englund says. Mirzayanov's lawyer, Alexander Asnis, said earlier that if the case is returned for investigation, he would appeal to have Mirzayanov released from custody.
The trial's outcome could set a precedent for other scientists. Vladimir Petrenko, for example, was a Red Army lieutenant in 1982 when he inadvertently became a human guinea pig at the Defense Ministry Central Research Institute in Shikhany, Russia. ``I was only 22. I was young and naive, and I liked science,'' Mr. Petrenko recalls. ``I believed the tests were not dangerous, and that they were necessary to find ways to protect people's health.''
Last year, when Petrenko sought medical help to treat more than a dozen chronic illnesses, he learned that he had inhaled lethal quantities of paralytic nerve gas in Shikhany. Several months later he was fired because of his deteriorating health. His military detachment is now considering instigating criminal proceedings against him for revealing to doctors his experiences at Shikhany.
Meanwhile, Mirzayanov's family keeps a daily vigil outside the courthouse. His daughter, Lena Orlova, recently waited eight hours to deliver a package of warm clothes, macaroni, butter, and bullion cubes to him.
``Prisoners are very badly fed there,'' Ms. Orlova said. ``When we were waiting we spoke to relatives of other prisoners. They told us that some fainted during their trials because of a lack of food.''