MOSCOW — A tale of betrayal and revenge in the bowels of the KGB stretching back nearly 20 years reaches a climax in a Moscow courtroom tomorrow, as a maverick agent appeals a jail sentence on the grounds that he was framed.
In the gallery will be international human rights monitors, who say the case against Viktor Orekhov is a litmus test of the new Russia's commitment to democratic law.
And in the background, says Mr. Orekhov's lawyer, will be spy-agency bosses viewing the outcome of the appeal as a sign of how far they still can influence the judicial process.
Orekhov faces three years in a maximum security prison for an apparently minor incident: An unlicensed pistol was found in his car during a routine road check in May. But family, friends, and international human rights watchdogs say the sentence is actually a punishment by the now-renamed KGB for Orekhov's role as a turncoat agent. As a captain in the notorious Fifth Directorate, he took it upon himself to secretly assist the Soviet political dissidents whom he and his colleagues were meant to be persecuting.
He warned dissidents - including Andrei Sakharov and other prominent figures - of impending searches or arrests.
Orekhov's actions "saved a lot of people I know from prison," says Pavel Bashkirov, a former political prisoner.
But they landed Orekhov himself in jail. Unmasked as a traitor to the KGB in 1978, he served seven years in a labor camp.
But those seven years did not silence the highly unusual former KGB officer. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in an era of new freedoms, Orekhov has been an outspoken critic of the KGB and of its Russian successor, the Federal Security Service (FSB).
He has also helped organize a series of international conferences entitled "The KGB, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow."
"Orekhov always says everything he knows, not like other former KGB people who say only what they think is safe to say," according to conference chairman and former dissident Sergei Grigoriants.
Orekhov's wife, Nadezhda, says this history shows the real reason why her husband is being prosecuted."This is personal revenge," she argues. "Revenge for previous events and because he won't be silent."
In particular, Mrs. Orekhova recalls, her husband gave an interview last March in which he was extremely unflattering about Gen. Nikolai Trofimov, who had just been made head of the FSB's Moscow branch. General Trofimov had been Orekhov's partner in the old KGB. Later he headed the investigation of Orekhov's betrayal.
Independent observers agree that the intelligence agencies seem to be seeking to punish the turncoat again. "The FSB involvement in this case is obvious," charges Rachel Denber, the local representative of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, a US-based independent human rights group.
"It is clearly an attempt to get revenge on one of its enemies," she adds.
Orekhov says the unlicensed pistol, which police found in the road check in May, was inoperable because the gun's firing pin was broken. He said he was carrying it for show because he was driving in a dangerous district of the capital.
But by the time the case came to court in July, the prosecution had a report from police ballistics experts saying the gun was in working order. Orekhov was found guilty.
His lawyer told him not to worry unduly: A first offender's standard sentence for illegal arms possession is one year's probation. But Orekhov got three years in a maximum-security facility.
Andrei Rakhmilovich, the lawyer handling Orekhov's appeal, argues that not only was evidence tampered with during the investigation, but the judge was also intimidated into handing down an especially harsh sentence.
Mr. Rakhmilovich is appealing on the grounds that the gun was packaged and repackaged several times between its confiscation in May and its arrival at the ballistics experts' office a month later, suggesting that the gun may have been repaired in the meantime. He is also seeking to have the lower court's ruling annulled because the state prosecutor was present when the judge and lay assessors were discussing their verdict and sentence, and was heard to shout at them as they did so.
At the same time, Orekhov's lawyer Rakhmilovich will argue that the severity of the sentence was due only to Orekhov's previous conviction: Russian law prescribes that second-time offenders serve in maximum-security jails.
"To condition a criminal sentence today on the outcome of a political trial that took place ... during the Brezhnev era is blatantly unfair," Human Rights Watch/Helsinki said in an open letter supporting Orekhov.
"Pressure was put on the lower court," says Rakhmilovich. "But any pressure now can't be as strong as it was before because the case has been widely publicized. I hope that Viktor Orekhov might be saved because of public opinion."
While his lawyer puts the chances of winning the appeal at "50-50," Orekhov is more pessimistic according to his wife, who talked to him last week in a prison hospital where he is now staying.
"He says he knows he was framed, and he is sure they won't retreat now," Mrs. Orekhova said. "He believes he will serve the full three years, and be persecuted all his life."
How tomorrow's appeal is decided, says Ms. Denber, will mean more than just Orekhov's fate.
So far the case "demonstrates that the security establishment still has a fairly free hand to interfere in civil affairs," she argues. "These things should not be happening even in a transitional democracy."