Spy trial begins for Russian environmentalist
(ENN) -- In a case that encompasses international intrigue, human rights, the safety of the world ocean and the integrity of the process of law, the trial of Aleksandr Nikitin that began this week in St. Petersburg, Russia, has all the makings of an epic story.
The trial is expected to attract international observers and diplomats from the European Union and the United States, human rights organizations and members of scientific organizations who are concerned about the right of freedom of speech under increasingly restrictive Russian secrecy regulations. Altogether, some 20 organizations have expressed their intention to send observers to the trial.
A former Russian naval captain and nuclear inspector of the Soviet navy, Nikitin upon retirement went to work for Bellona, a Norwegian environmental group. He wrote two chapters of a report on military waste in the Murmansk region, home to Russia's Northern Fleet and its sea-borne nuclear deterrent.
After an investigation that began in October 1995 by the Russian Federal Security Bureau, formerly the KGB, and included according to all reports, raids, interrogations, confiscation of material and harassment of Bellona personnel and facilities in St. Petersburg and Severodvinsk, Nikitin was arrested at his St. Petersburg home on espionage charges on Feb. 6, 1996.
Nikitin and Bellona have always maintained that the report was based on public information. In fact, the charges against Nikitin have been revamped at least six times, once because the police realized that the sinking of three submarines discussed in the report had been the subject of international publicity.
The report, titled "The Russian Northern Fleet - Sources of Radioactive Contamination," publicizes the danger of pollution posed by aging nuclear submarines based on Russia's Kola Peninsula, which are poorly maintained due to lack of funds. Despite efforts by the Russian police to suppress the report, it was published on the Internet in February 1996.
Bellona claims that more than 90 nuclear powered submarines taken out of service are rusting away near the different naval bases and most of them still have highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel inside their reactors. In fact, the Kola peninsula and Severodvinsk have the highest concentration of nuclear reactors, active and derelict, in the world. The break up of the Soviet Union and the severe economic crisis that ensued have resulted in fewer officers with less training and experience responsible for oversight of the aging fleet.
Nikitin received the Goldman Environmental Prize last year for his work on the report.
The case has been a high profile test of Russia's commitment to the rule of law from the beginning. Nikitin was held in pre-trial detention, in virtual isolation, until Dec. 14, 1996, and has been officially restricted to the city limits of St. Petersburg since his release from custody. It took a ruling from the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation to allow him to choose his own lawyer, rather than accept the police-chosen former KGB officer initially offered.
In addition, the case was twice transferred to a military court. Again it took a special ruling of the Russian Supreme Court ordering the prosecutor's office in St. Petersburg to transfer the case to a civilian court.
The judge for the case is expected to receive the secret decrees before the court session begins, and then is expected to adjourn court for two days to let the defense counsel read through the documents.
These secret decrees, some of which are being applied retroactively, constitute the basis for the high treason charges filed against Nikitin. Nikitin's lawyer, Soviet-era dissident Yury Schmidt, says that the charges must be based on published federal laws and the Defense Ministry's secret retroactive charges are a direct violation of the Russian Constitution and internationally recognized principles of legal protection.
If Nikitin is found guilty as charged, the minimum sentence will be 10 years imprisonment. He could also be sentenced to death.
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