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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

23 Witnesses Ruled Out But Pasko Not Hopeful

VLADIVOSTOK, Far East -- A military court Friday refused to allow 23 of the prosecution's 28 remaining witnesses to testify against a navy journalist accused of spying for Japan, but lawyers for Captain Grigory Pasko remain grim about his prospects for acquittal.

The decision was one of the first victories for the beleaguered defense of Pasko, who stands accused of treason for publicizing environmental abuses by Russia's Pacific Fleet.

"In general, it's very good that the court took our side rather than the prosecution's side," said Pasko lawyer Anatoly Pyshkin. "But we are afraid of making any forecasts. There have been too many violations of the law during this process."

Pasko himself, in an interview with the news agency Interfax before entering the courtroom, was even more pessimistic.

"I am not hoping that the trial will be fair," Pasko was quoted as saying. "I am not sure about it. Everything indicates that it will be a sham, not a proper trial."

The decision came on a day in which Pasko himself was scheduled to testify before the closed court in this naval port city of 700,000 people on the Sea of Japan. The defense had announced Thursday that the witness phase of the trial had concluded, which would have allowed Pasko to take the stand in his own behalf.

Pyshkin even expressed guarded optimism, telling reporters that the prosecution's 22 witnesses so far had all confirmed Pasko's innocence. But when Pasko arrived in court Friday, prosecutors attempted to call another 28 witnesses.

Judges trimmed the list to five witnesses, including three Japanese reporters whom Pasko worked for, and two agents from the Federal Security Service.

Prosecutors refused to comment on the case.

Pasko's case parallels that of Alexander Nikitin, a retired navy captain in St. Petersburg who is charged with releasing military secrets by preparing a report for Norwegian environmentalists.

But unlike Nikitin, who was released, Pasko has spent the last year and a half in jail, and only recently has he begun receiving high-profile support from human rights groups. Since Amnesty International named Pasko a prisoner of conscience, judges have received more than 1,000 letters asking for his release.

Pasko was arrested in November 1997 on his way back from Japan and charged with high treason. He worked both as a stringer for Japanese publications and as a staff reporter for the navy newspaper Boyevaya Vakhta. Fleet prosecutors refuse to say what he is accused of, but a secret court document leaked to reporters earlier this year revealed a string of charges based on his work as a journalist.

For example, Pasko was charged with revealing state secrets in a story on an unfavorable Pacific Fleet audit, even though a naval commander allowed him to read the audit. And he was accused of betraying Russia by reporting in detail on maneuvers, although officials allowed him to sit in on a planning meeting by top fleet officials.

Pasko also worked with Japanese media such as NHK television and the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. One charge accuses him of giving NHK video footage of a Russian navy vessel dumping liquid radioactive waste in the sea, even though Pasko defenders say he had permission from the Federal Security Service and the ship's captain to make the film.