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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Court Puts Nikitin in Purgatory

In a move that probably damns environmentalist Alexander Nikitin to many more years of living in limbo, the Russian Supreme Court refused Thursday to dismiss treason and espionage charges against him.

Instead, the court agreed with a lower court that the three-year case needed more investigation, and denied the requests of Nikitin and his attorneys that the charges be dismissed.

"This is very bad, very bad," Nikitin told reporters outside the Moscow courtroom. "I am worried that this additional investigation will last forever."

A former Navy captain from St. Petersburg, Nikitin has been under investigation since February 1996. The Federal Security Service, or FSB, says Nikitin is a traitor and a spy who divulged state secrets in a report he co-authored describing slipshod nuclear waste disposal practices in the Northern Fleet.

Nikitin said he relied on public record sources in compiling that report for the Norwegian environmental group Bellona.

Although the FSB - the main successor agency of the Soviet KGB - officially has only one month to complete the investigation after it receives the case back from the court, it can ask for delays as many times as it finds necessary. Nikitin now says he fears it could be years before his case gets to court again.

Nikitin, 46, spent nearly 11 months in jail and was charged seven times under government decrees the FSB says are secret and apply retroactively. His home and office telephones are monitored and he may not leave St. Petersburg without special permission from prosecutors.

"Imagine a person who has spent three years in such condition, and who faces five more years of similar treatment," Nikitin told reporters at a press conference.

Last October, the Nikitin case was finally heard by the St. Petersburg City Court. The court said the indictment was "not specific" and returned the case to the FSB for further investigation - a procedure that is only allowed by the Russian legal system, legal experts say.

Both the defense and the prosecution protested the city court decision to the Supreme Court. The prosecution maintained that they had presented enough evidence against Nikitin in the indictment and that the trial should resume.

The defense, meanwhile, said that if the prosecution could not assemble a coherent and competent case - which was one interpretation of the St. Petersburg court's ruling - then the charges should just be dropped. They also said that the charges were illegal because basing them on secret and retroactively applied decrees violates the Russian Constitution.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court's sixth criminal collegiate, presided over by Judge Magomet Karimov, discussed the motions in a three-hour-long closed session - and satisfied neither party, ruling that the decision of the St. Petersburg court should stand. It also maintained the travel restrictions on Nikitin.

Prosecutors could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Although presumption of innocence is listed as a priority in the Russian Constitution and Criminal Code, human rights activists say it is rarely applied by the courts.

Russia has "no mechanisms that would make it work," said Diederik Lohman, director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch.

"The Russian legal system works in such a way that when a prosecutor does bad work, instead of the prosecutor being punished for doing bad work, it is the accused who suffers," Lohman said.

According to Lohman, about 1 percent of all criminal cases in Russia end in acquittal, about 10 percent are sent back for reinvestigation and the rest of the criminal cases end in convictions. The acquittal rate is higher in jury trials, which are available only in nine of Russia's 89 regions - but these decisions are often overturned by the Supreme Court, Lohman said.

He said that when courts return cases for additional investigation due to lack of evidence presented in the indictment, restrictive measures are not lifted from the accused and people sit in prison while prosecutors reinvestigate their cases.

"The whole system works against acquittal, and the Nikitin case proves this very well," Lohman said.

According to a Bellona lawyer, Jon Gauslaa, the easiest way to get Nikitin out of the cycle of reinvestigations now would be to appeal to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. But even if the Strasbourg court accepts the appeal, it would take 1 1/2 years to be heard, Gauslaa said.

Since May, Russian citizens have had the formal right to appeal to the Strasbourg court after all domestic opportunities have been exhausted. However, at the moment, the Strasbourg court does not have a Russian representative, and therefore cannot hear suits filed by Russian citizens.

Since Nikitin was first charged, he has received seven awards from U.S. and European environmental and human rights organizations and while in jail was named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International - the first Russian to be so distinguished since Andrei Sakharov.