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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FSB Under Pressure as Nikitin Nears Trial

When the Russian state charged environmental activist Alexander Nikitin with espionage and treason, prosecutors cited never-published "secret" decrees they said Nikitin had violated. Now, with less than three weeks to go before Nikitin's St. Petersburg trial, the judge in the case is asking to see those decrees before proceeding.

If prosecutors comply and give the court and Nikitin access to those secret Defense Ministry decrees, it would mark the first time in the case's nearly three-year history that Nikitin has seen the full charges against him.

Needless to say, Nikitin is curious.

"We suspect f we are, in fact, sure f that the military has been interpreting these decrees [for the FSB investigators] arbitrarily," said Nikitin in a telephone interview from St. Petersburg on Friday.

Nikitin said that expert opinions provided to the FSB by the military have offered conflicting accounts of the same decrees. "Playing with this specious argument is the best FSB can do, because there is no substance to their charges."

The Federal Security Service, or FSB, the main KGB successor agency, arrested Nikitin in 1996 and held him for 10 months without bail. FSB investigators said Nikitin, a retired Russian navy captain, had broken Russian law by co-authoring a report for the Norwegian environmental group Bellona that criticized how the Russian navy disposed of the nuclear waste it generated.

Nikitin and Bellona have always argued that the report is based entirely on public record sources such as newspaper accounts. On Oct. 20, a St. Petersburg court under Judge Sergei Golets will finally hear the case. In a telephone interview from St. Petersburg on Friday, Golets said he needed to read the decrees to see if they applied to Nikitin, and added that he even had suspicions that prosecutors submitted altered documents.

"We want to make sure the prosecutors are honest. We have certain doubts," Golets said. In an earlier interview, asked if he would dismiss the charges against Nikitin without a trial, Golets replied, "So far, no."

If the decrees are not received by the court by Oct. 15, Golets said he would hold the Defense Ministry in contempt of court.

All of which has the long-suffering Nikitin more optimistic than ever about his case. "People should indeed be prosecuted according to laws, not according to some decrees," said Nikitin, in a telephone interview from his home in St. Petersburg. But Nikitin's lead defense lawyer, Yury Schmidt, warned in a separate telephone interview that the case was far from settled as "the FSB will surely exert significant pressure on the court." Neither Golets nor the FSB press office in St. Petersburg would comment on that allegation.

Nikitin's case has attracted international attention. Nikitin has been declared Amnesty International's first prisoner of conscience in Russia since physicist Andrei Sakharov, the California-based Goldman Foundation has awarded him a prestigious $75,000 environmental prize and the U.S. White House has invited him to visit.

Nikitin has been accused of violating the State Secrets Act of 1993, a law that provides no information on what constitutes a state secret. That was supposed to have been elaborated by a presidential decree, but apparently never was.

FSB investigators instead assembled their case by citing references to secret Defense Ministry decrees that have never been published f one of which was only adopted months ***after*** Nikitin's February 1996 arrest.

Requests by human rights groups, the media and Nikitin's defense to see the decrees have been consistently denied by the FSB, investigators for which have stated that the decrees are so secret that not even FSB investigators citing them have ever actually read them.

The Russian Constitution outlaws the practice of charging people with having violated either secret laws, or laws that were adopted after the alleged crime in question. Being charged with having violated a secret and retroactively adopted law would seem to fit both categories.

This spring, the Russian Prosecutor General's office ordered the FSB to revise its case, remove all references to secret Defense Ministry decrees and either hand the matter to the courts or drop it. FSB investigator AlexanderKolb complied, excising references to the decrees and transferring the case to St. Petersburg criminal court on June 29.

However, Nikitin's supporters say that Kolb and the FSB took the Prosecutor General's orders so literally as to make them meaningless f excising all specific references to specific decrees, while still charging that Nikitin has violated secret decrees that are now simply no longer cited.

"They assumed they'd get away with it as they used to," said defense lawyer Schmidt.

Nikitin's case has long seen allegations that prosecutors have broken the law. FSB investigators initially denied Nikitin a lawyer. When Nikitin used to be trotted out for bail hearings, his family and friends expressed alarm at how his health had deteriorated, but for months the FSB denied Nikitin requested medical attention.

Meanwhile, Bellona activists were denied Russian visas, and FSB agents declared the Bellona report f available on the Internet at f "forbidden literature," and confiscated hundreds of copies.