Russian human rights activists say harsh rulings in two court cases last week could mean that the country's security service is flexing new muscle.
The cases of Grigory Pasko, a military journalist who revealed illegal nuclear waste dumping by the Russian Navy, and sociologist Igor Sutyagin, who produced a press digest for a British firm, have been described as a barometer of Russia's progress toward an open, rule-of-law society under former KGB agent Vladimir Putin.
"What is happening involves a secret police revival, not the pursuit of justice," says Yury Schekochekin, a liberal parliamentarian and member of the Duma Security Commission.
Both defendants were prosecuted by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, under a secret decree that has been ruled illegal by the Supreme Court. Both have been subjected to lengthy imprisonment while the FSB tried unsuccessfully to marshal evidence that they betrayed their country.
Some experts charge that a wave of spy trials in the past two years has been orchestrated by the FSB to intimidate intellectuals.
A year ago an American businessman, Edmund Pope, was convicted of espionage and later pardoned by the Kremlin. Another US citizen, exchange student John Tobin, was arrested for alleged drug possession - but publicly accused by the FSB of being an American spy. He was released after serving six months in prison. Last summer a Russian diplomat, Valentin Moiseyev, was convicted of treason and given 4-1/2 years at hard labor for giving published materials to a South Korean colleague. Valentin Danilov, a Siberian physicist, faces treason charges for allegedly passing rocket secrets to China. All of the trials were held in secret, and human rights workers claim all were marked by gross procedural errors and FSB pressure on the judges.
"All these trials at one time are not a coincidence; they constitute a campaign," says Ernest Chorny, an expert with Ecology and Human Rights, a coalition of independent groups. "The defendants have been chosen not on the basis of their guilt, but to send a particular message to a certain social group. Hence we've had spy trials involving a journalist, an academic, a scientist, a diplomat, and a foreign businessman in barely a year."
Mr. Pasko, a former naval captain turned journalist, was convicted of "high treason in the form of espionage" by a military court on Dec. 25, and sentenced to four years' hard labor. The FSB maintained that Pasko had attended a secret military council in 1997, took notes, and had intended to pass information about "secret naval maneuvers" to the Japanese media - though he was never accused of actually having done so. In 1999, the same court had convicted Pasko of negligence for passing film to Japanese TV journalists of the Russian Pacific Fleet illegally jettisoning nuclear wastes. Pasko was subsequently amnestied by Russia's Supreme Court, but appealed the decision anyway. The unexpected result was a new trial on fresh charges of treason, which his lawyers claim were fabricated by the FSB.
The Pasko case has raised doubts about the role of President Putin, who has repeatedly pledged to reform Russia's abuse-ridden justice system, curb the arbitrary powers of the security services, and open trials to public scrutiny. Some human rights activists believe the Kremlin is merely saying one thing and doing another; others fear Putin may be powerless to rein in the FSB.
"We have a policy of proclaimed democratization but practical activization of the security services," says Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Fund, an independent human rights watchdog.
Last week the Kremlin abolished the presidential pardons committee, created as a check on the post-Soviet justice system, and replaced it with local panels subject to regional authorities - a move that experts say further removes the Kremlin from direct responsibility for often corrupt and misfiring courts.
The case of Mr. Sutyagin, a researcher with Moscow's Institute of Canada-USA Studies, has human rights workers even more worried. Sutyagin, who never had access to classified materials, was accused of passing military information gleaned from the Russian press to the British public relations firm Alternative Futures, which the FSB claims was a front for the secret service of "a NATO member state."
On the last day of Sutyagin's treason trial, Dec. 27, the judge cancelled the proceeding, noting there had been "substantial violations of legal procedure, which deprived the defendant of his constitutional right to defend himself." Under a Russian judicial practice, which has been repudiated by the Supreme Court, the judge sent Sutyagin back to prison - where he has already spent more than two years - while the FSB returns to the investigation stage to reformulate the case.
This means that a Russian defendant is basically guilty until proven guilty, say Sutyagin's supporters. "The judge admitted the case was fabricated, but did not have the courage to stand up to the FSB," says Pavel Podvig, an expert with the independent Center of Arms Control Studies in Moscow and presently visiting scholar at Princeton University.
However the trials turn out, say human rights activists, the FSB is succeeding in limiting public debate and inhibiting contacts between Russian intellectuals and foreign colleagues. "The media is already actively censoring itself," says Mr. Simonov, "and refusing to report on any sensitive military or environmental issues."