Since coming under harsh criticism for his handling of the Kursk nuclear-submarine crisis last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been presenting a more open face, publicly deploring the decrepit state of his nation's Soviet-era military machine. During a visit to the US last week, the Kremlin leader appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live" to discuss the tragedy, and appealed for more openness and international cooperation to prevent future accidents.
But whether his government has a genuine desire for such openness remains to be seen.
Alexander Nikitin, the man who originally warned that the Russian Navy's Northern Fleet was a breeding ground for potential disasters, has been subjected to a five-year ordeal of prison, house arrest, and repeated trials on charges of treason and espionage. Despite being acquitted by Russia's Supreme Court, Mr. Nikitin - who held the rank of captain aboard Soviet-era nuclear submarines - before turning environmentalist, is now facing a renewed legal assault.
Human rights experts say his ongoing troubles illustrate the painfully slow pace of reform in Russia's justice system, and may also signal a general crackdown on unsanctioned political and environmental activities.
"One of the hallmarks of the Putin era so far has been extreme irritation with any independent stirrings in the courts, media, or body politic," says Alexei Simonov, director of the Glasnost Foundation, an independent human rights group. "If we had a rational system in Russia, Nikitin would be made a government consultant on how to prevent accidents like the Kursk. But our system says that anyone without the authority to speak must keep their mouths shut."
Nikitin was arrested in 1996 by the Federal Security Service (FSB), domestic successor to the Soviet KGB, after he coauthored a report with the Norwegian environmental group Bellona, documenting alleged nuclear abuses by the Northern Fleet, including throwing nuclear reactors and radioactive materials into the Arctic Ocean. After several inconclusive trials, he was acquitted by a St. Petersburg court in December. In April, Russia's Supreme Court upheld his acquittal in a landmark decision that slammed the FSB and the prosecutor's office for imprisoning Nikitin under "secret" regulations and trying him for violations of unpublished and retroactively applied laws.
"Nikitin is the first person in Russian history ever to be acquitted on a charge of treason," says Yuri Schmidt, Nikitin's lawyer. "This precedent gave people hope that it is possible to win in court even when the forces of the state are arrayed against you. And that's why the authorities can't let this verdict stand."
Tomorrow, Nikitin is scheduled to appear before the Presidium of the Supreme Court, a body comprising 13 of the court's 115 judges, which has the power to renew the investigation against him on exactly the same charges.
In Russian legal practice, higher judges can return a case to square one if they are convinced the original investigation was insufficiently thorough or correct. Ironically, the FSB's appeal cites past improprieties and illegal tactics by the prosecution as reasons to go after Nikitin again.
Nikitin takes his current predicament with grim humor. "The prosecutor-general's main argument now is: 'For over 4-1/2 years Nikitin's rights were violated.... Now we want to restore his rights. Give us back the case, and we will carry out a new investigation following all the laws,' " he says.
Analysts say an appeal of a Supreme Court decision to the Presidium is very rare, and has probably been brought due to political pressure. "Certain people from the security services have risen very high under Putin, and they cannot let Nikitin's acquittal stand," says Mr. Simonov.
The prime mover of the case, analysts say, is probably Gen. Viktor Cherkassov, who headed the St. Petersburg FSB when Nikitin was arrested there in 1996. General Cherkassov is known to be close to Mr. Putin, and recently was appointed governor-general of Russia's Northwest District, which includes St. Petersburg. "This makes us think that people within the president's political circle are involved in this," says Nikitin. "We are afraid that political influence may be exerted on the president of the Supreme Court."
Several similar cases suggest Nikitin's plight is not unique. Another former naval officer, Grigory Pasko, was imprisoned for 20 months on treason charges after providing videotape evidence of illegal nuclear dumping by Russia's Pacific Fleet to Japanese journalists. The laboratory of Vladimir Sofyer, a nuclear scientist, was raided by the FSB last year because the lab was carrying out an unsanctioned study of the environmental effects of a 1985 Soviet atomic-submarine accident in the Pacific.
This year, the Russian Ministry of Justice announced that all nongovernmental organizations must register with the government or face dissolution. Several human rights, environmental, and antimilitarist groups were denied documentation, essentially making them illegal groups. "We thought that Russia must have solved all the big problems - crime, banditry, terrorism - and that the general-prosecutor's office had nothing better to do than monitor nongovernmental organizations," says Nikitin. "This all began with Putin's appearance on the horizon of power," he adds.
Human rights workers say that if the Presidium upholds Nikitin's acquittal, it will not be a great victory, but will at least signal that hope is not lost for legal reform. "If the Presidium stands firm against this attack, it has a unique chance to send the past practices of Russian jurisprudence to the scrapheap of history," says Jon Gauslaa, Bellona's legal adviser. "If not, all the positive developments in the Russian legal system over the past decade may turn out to have been for nothing."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society