Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

State Lays Out Case in Pasko Trial

VLADIVOSTOK, Far East -- Prosecutors began laying out a treason case Thursday against military journalist Grigory Pasko, who was boosted only the day before by Amnesty International naming him a prisoner of conscience.

Police led a handcuffed Pasko - a navy captain who provided Japanese media with information on alleged environmental abuses by the Pacific Fleet - through a crowd of Russian and foreign journalists and into a closed courtroom, where military prosecutors spent the day reading the first third of the secret case against him.

The Federal Security Service, or FSB, has demanded the trial be closed, insisting the case involves military secrets. Pasko's lawyers say he was within his constitutional rights in publicizing the fleet's illegal dumping of nuclear waste.

Yury Maksimenko, a representative of the Veterans of the Fleet Council, who was permitted to sit in on the trial, said the case was flawed.

"There are so many assumptions and not much proof," Maksimenko said. "There are references that 'someone said something.' They keep saying that Pasko sold information, but this is what every journalist does."

The Pasko case has been compared to that of Alexander Nikitin, a St. Petersburg navy captain and environmentalist who has been charged with treason for contributing to a Norwegian environmental group's report on the dumping of nuclear waste in the sea.

But while Nikitin's case quickly attracted international concern - and he was long ago named a political prisoner by Amnesty International - Pasko had received relatively little attention during his 14 months in prison awaiting trial.

Pasko was visibly agitated as he left the court Thursday. "What do you expect from a military court, when the jurors are all from the FSB?" he said.

Prosecutors planned to finish reading the case Friday and begin calling witnesses from Boyevaya Vakhta, the newspaper where Pasko worked as an editor and reporter.

The trial was expected to continue for weeks. Pasko could face up to 20 years in jail if convicted. Prosecutors and the military judge refused to speak to the press on the case Thursday.

"I told you no comment, and if you people keep bugging us, we'll kick you out of here," snapped Judge Dmitry Savushkin.

Pasko came under suspicion in November 1997 when customs officials seized documents from him as he was heading for Japan. When he returned a few days later, Pasko was arrested. Lawyers have noted that Pasko willingly came home even though his papers had been seized - an indication he was innocent, they say. They insist the records he provided to the Japanese were public, and they say the government is keeping the case secret because the evidence against Pasko is so shaky.

The problem could be that Russia has an enormous backlog of documents that haven't been declassified even though the information they contain has already been made public, said a Vladivostok military journalist who asked for anonymity. Pasko's documents could have been of this type, he said.

Pasko's trial opened in October but was suspended the same day when the defense filed a motion for him to be released pending a verdict. The matter was referred to the Supreme Court, which ordered Pasko to remain behind bars.

Since his arrest, Pasko has sued NHK, a Japanese television station he was free-lancing for, claiming it used some materials without his permission. NHK disputes that charge. Although it has a bureau in Vladivostok, it has not sent reporters to cover the trial.

Despite the international spotlight on the case, defense lawyer Anatoly Pyshkin said he had "no big illusions" that Pasko would receive a fair trial before the military court.

As the hearing began, prosecutors expelled Pasko's wife, Galina Morozova, from the courtroom. She handed a lunch bag containing a small pizza and a hamburger through the bars to a guard, who promised to deliver it to Pasko.

"I have heard that if the families don't feed them, they sit hungry all day in court," she said.

Morozova has been limited to one visit a month. She said Pasko has been held in a solitary cell next door to a group of prisoners infected with tuberculosis, and she is afraid he will catch the disease. He spends his time devouring the books she brings him, most recently a multi-volume set of Nabokov novels.

As the case has drawn increasing attention, the atmosphere surrounding it has grown more circuslike. Reporters, unable to talk to Pasko except in passing, interviewed each other about the significance of the case. And a monk in a dirty cassock and sheepskin coat gathered the quote-hungry mob around him and proclaimed Pasko's innocence.

Monk Benedict from the Moscow Patriarchate was carrying a rucksack containing all his worldly goods: a change of clothes, a bottle of holy water and some sanctified soil from a site where Bolsheviks murdered Russian Orthodox nuns. A former navy man himself, Benedict interrupted an impromptu news conference by Pasko's wife to inquire about the prisoner's spiritual life."Symbolically he is a Christian," Morozova answered. "But he was never baptized."

Satisfied, the monk proclaimed, "We are united by the cross; the Russian fleet is also under the cross [of St. Andrew, on its flag]."

Eduard Vorotnikov, a Vladivostok television reporter, said the case has implications for other Russian journalists.

"I think people should know the truth, because it's very difficult to get it in our conditions," Vorotnikov said. "We should encourage Grigory for doing his job."

Nonna Chernyakova contributed to this report.