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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Visa Ban Sparks Row in Nikitin Case

ST. PETERSBURG -- Four representatives of the Norwegian environmental group Bellona have been banned indefinitely from entering St. Petersburg in what the activists -- and even a Russian diplomat -- say is an effort by the state to foil Alexander Nikitin's defense against treason charges.

A spokesman at the Foreign Ministry in Moscow confirmed Thursday that the four representatives of Bellona "were no longer allowed to enter St. Petersburg," limiting their travel privileges in Russia to Moscow or Murmansk. He declined further comment.

Nikitin's defense attorneys and supporters said the prohibition against the activists is the result of pressure on the Foreign Ministry by the Federal Security Service, or FSB, successor to the KGB, which arrested Nikitin eight months ago over his role in a Bellona report critical of Russian Navy nuclear waste dumping.

In a move that recalled the Soviet policy of closing off numerous cities to foreigners the activists were granted visas, but they are not allowed to visit St. Petersburg, the city where their colleague Nikitin has been jailed since February.

Ironically, they can visit Murmansk, the focus of the disputed Bellona report, and Moscow, where it would be easy for them to meet with defense attorneys.

The acting Russian ambassador to Norway, Vladimir Rosonov, doubted the Foreign Ministry was solely responsible for the decision.

"I think that others were behind this besides the Foreign Ministry," he said in a telephone interview from Oslo, although he would not elaborate. He added that he intended to speak with Moscow at the request of the Norwegians, but was "not hopeful" his bosses were "fully capable" of resolving the visa difficulties in light of the alleged FSB leveraging.

He repeated similar statements in an interview on Norwegian Radio in Oslo, where news of the ban has raised a media firestorm, a spokesman for the station said. Rosonov's statements add credence to defense allegations that the FSB is trying to stack the deck against Nikitin.

Yury Schmidt, Nikitin's defense attorney, said "I already know the FSB case against Nikitin is full of fabrication and mendacity, and this is just further proof." He added, "I am defending Nikitin regardless of whether Bellona is able to come or not, but this just shows that they will stop at nothing to derail our case."

Boris Pustintsev, president of the local rights group Citizen's Watch, which has been active in preparing Nikitin's defense, said the ban was "an attempt by the FSB to prevent a fair trial."

"I have not seen such naked arrogance from the government in five years," he said, adding that it recalled treatmen of dissidents under Brezhnev.

FSB investigators in St. Petersburg would not comment on the ban against Bellona.

The ban on the activists, who had planned to visit St. Petersburg to meet with Nikitin's defense attorneys, prompted the Norwegian Foreign Ministry to cable a demand to its Russian counterpart demanding it rescind the prohibition or offer an explanation. As of Thursday evening the Norwegian ministry had received no response, a spokeswoman said.

Nikitin, a former naval captain, was arrested by the FSB on Feb. 6 on suspicion of espionage for his contributions to a Bellona report on Russian Navy nuclear waste disposal practices in the Murmansk region. The FSB says Nikitin's contributions to the report came from classified sources. His attorneys and supporters say his work was based solely on public record.