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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

FSB Questions Nuclear Researchers

Russian security services this week detained a researcher who studies nuclear nonproliferation issues and searched the apartments and an office of two of his colleagues, including one American, the researchers said.

Russian environmental activists denounced the searches, saying they were part of a crackdown on environmentalists and researchers working in the area of nuclear disarmament.

"I think these FSB actions are part of a large-scale plan to teach environmentalists and researchers not to stick their noses into issues surrounding Russian nuclear facilities," said Karen Narsisyan, a lawyer who represented Grigory Pasko.

Pasko, a military journalist from Vladivostok who wrote about the Pacific Fleet's practice of dumping nuclear waste, was acquitted of espionage charges in July after spending 20 months in jail.

Alexander Nikitin, a former naval officer who was charged with treason and accused of revealing state secrets in a report on the nuclear safety of Russia's Northern Fleet, said the events this week resembled his situation four years ago.

At 8 a.m. Wednesday, Federal Security Service, or FSB, officers in the Kaluga region came to the apartment of Igor Sutyagin, a researcher at the USA/Canada Institute who worked on issues of strategic and nuclear arms control.

The officers escorted him to an FSB facility and spent the rest of the day searching his Obninsk apartment and seizing his research materials, his wife, Irina Sutyagina, said. Obninsk, where the secret Institute for Power and Physics Engineering is located, is some 200 kilometers from Moscow.

As of Friday evening, he had not yet been charged with any crime but he had not returned home, his wife said. She said that until Thursday night, Sutyagin was able to call relatives and colleagues, but she has not heard from him since then.

On Friday, an officer with the Kaluga FSB investigation department confirmed that Sutyagin was at one of the FSB's temporary detention centers and was being questioned. He declined to provide any details and refused to give his name.

At 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, a group of FSB officers came to the one-room Moscow apartment of Josh Handler, a U.S. researcher from Princeton University, he said. Handler, who has been in Russia since early February gathering material for his Ph.D. dissertation on why U.S.-Russia disarmament work did not go further in the 1990s, said the officers discouraged him from contacting embassy representatives or a lawyer during the search.

The search lasted for seven hours and the FSB officers took away scholarly articles, notebooks, a Toshiba computer with most of Handler's research and newspaper articles, including clippings from The Moscow Times. Like Sutyagin, Handler is affiliated with the United States and Canada Institute.

Also Wednesday afternoon, FSB officers searched the office of Pavel Podvig, an independent researcher of nuclear arms and safety. The FSB seized research materials and computers, Podvig confirmed in a telephone interview Friday.

Later, FSB officers moved onto Podvig's Moscow apartment and searched it until 12:30 a.m.

An FSB spokesman, who declined to identify himself, said the searches were conducted as part of a criminal investigation against a Russian citizen suspected of revealing state secrets. He would not elaborate on Sutyagin's arrest.

Podvig works at the Center on Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies in Moscow. He is the editor of Strategic Nuclear Arms of Russia, a collection of scientific articles published in October 1998. Sutyagin wrote a chapter of the book.

Podvig said he and his co-workers were always very careful about following the letter of the Russian law on state secrets. They sent a copy of the manuscript to FSB and to the Defense Ministry for review before publication, Podvig said.

Podvig said he hoped the situation would be "sorted out soon."

But Nikitin, who spent several months in jail and whose trial is still dragging on, warned against trusting FSB too much.

"This is the FSB's tactic: to keep people without charging them with anything, so they cannot use their right to have a lawyer present during questioning," Nikitin said.

He said the FSB questioned him as a witness for four months and later declared him a suspect.

"The FSB probably already found something in their book and just wants to charge them with revealing state secrets," Nikitin said. "My hair stands on end now when I read the minutes of my first questionings: I naively told them so much."

Sergei Rogov, director of the USA and Canada Institute, said he knew that the FSB had opened an investigation involving a researcher from his institute and an American scholar visiting on an academic research exchange program. He declined to name the researchers.

Rogov stressed that his institute and researchers had no access to state secrets and he was certain that the institute's publications used only open sources.

"But the FSB apparently is concerned about other activities that we don't know about," he said. "We presume that the investigation is going to be conducted objectively. We are sure that nothing secret was betrayed as the result of the work at the institute."

The FSB has a history of investigating researchers working on nuclear issues. In addition to Nikitin and Pasko, Vladimir Soifer, who has studied the effects of a 1985 nuclear accident in the Far East, found himself the target of an FSB raid on his apartment and office this year. The officers confiscated many documents, including his international passport.