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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Navy Officer's Treason Trial Opens in Far East

VLADIVOSTOK, Far East -- Naval officer Grigory Pasko arrived in handcuffs Wednesday at a Pacific Fleet court that must decide whether he is a traitor to Russia or an enterprising journalist.

Pasko f whose case has become a cause c?l?bre among journalists throughout the world f smiled at his wife as he headed into a closed trial in which his lawyers moved that he be released on his own recognizance.

The motion was referred to the Supreme Court in Moscow and the trial adjourned until the high court makes its ruling, perhaps a month from now, lawyers said.

"We will win, I am sure," Pasko said as guards hurried him past reporters on the way out of the court building.

Agents for the Federal Security Service, or FSB, arrested Pasko, a captain in the navy and journalist with the military newspaper Boyevaya Vakhta, on Nov. 20, 1997, as he returned to this Pacific port city from Japan.

Pasko had provided documents and video footage to Japanese media describing the Russian navy's dumping of nuclear waste into the Sea of Japan and other environmental risks.

Prosecutors allege he sold state secrets, although the exact charges against him have never been made public.

Pasko's lawyers, however, say he is the victim of an official backlash against journalists who report matters that government and the military would rather cover up. "[This case] is a direct threat to all journalists in Russia," Pasko's attorney Yaroslav Gerin said.

Prosecutors refused to comment on the case. "No, no, no, no!" said Colonel Konstantin Osipenko, supervising prosecutor, cutting off a reporter's question about the case. "No way."

Vladivostok FSB chief General Viktor Kondratov, who is also President Boris Yeltsin's representative to the Primorye region, said Wednesday that he wasn't involved in military matters and couldn't comment on the case. In the past, however, he has said Pasko's activities were a threat to national security.

Pasko's is not the first case in which the government has prosecuted a Russian citizen for releasing information on nuclear waste. St. Petersburg resident Alexander Nikitin, a former navy captain, faces treason charges for contributing to an environmental group's critique of the way the navy disposes of nuclear waste. Nikitin's trial finally gets under way next week in St. Petersburg.

Like Nikitin, Pasko has received international support. PEN International, an organization of writers and editors, is paying the legal frees of Pasko's Moscow lawyer, Karen Nersisian. And the New York-based Committee to ProtectJournalists wrote to Yeltsin on Tuesday asking that Pasko be freed.

"We believe a guilty verdict against Pasko would have a chilling effect on investigative journalism in Russia and set a dangerous precedent for future use of the country's law on state secrets by officials against journalists," the committee's executive director, Anne Cooper, wrote.

Cooper added that the FSB has admitted that none of the documents it seized from Pasko were classified.

Some journalists expressed nervousness about even covering the trial.

For example, Pasko's lawyer said local political and military officials were behind Pasko's prosecution because he was investigating whether millions of yen Japan had given the region to clean up nuclear waste had disappeared.

But Olga Zhurman, a Vladivostok-based reporter for the State Television and Radio Company, said she wasn't sure whether she would broadcast that allegation. "He was actually bold enough to say this in front of the camera, but I am wondering whether I should put this on television," she said. "I'm just afraid of losing my job, and our governor can get me fired."

Pasko's wife, Galina Morozova, said she has seen her husband only four times since his arrest. After the third visit, early this year, prosecutors forbade further contact f according to Morozova, on the grounds that she had revealed secrets of the investigation by telling journalists that much of Pasko's sources were previously published documents. Only last week was she allowed a fourth visit.

"He didn't notice when glasnost ended," Morozova said. "I think it did end, but he continued doing what he was doing before, and this is what he was arrested for. He was the first victim of this new trend, and if mass media do not react in this case, the powers that be will feel free to do this to anyone."

In a town where the Pacific Fleet is based, a treason trial against an officer can stir angry debate. But the fleet headquarters had no comment. "We don't have any statement to make," said Vyacheslav Glushak, a senior officer in the Pacific Fleet press center. "Yes, he is a Pacific Fleet officer. But what if the court says tomorrow, 'Guys, he is a spy'?"

Nonna Chernyakova contributed to this report.