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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ecologists Wary of Putin in New Post

The nomination of Vladimir Putin for prime minister does not bode well for free speech in Russia, environmentalist Alexander Nikitin said Friday.

Nikitin, a navy officer charged with espionage for a report on sloppy nuclear-waste storage practices, said the cases against him and navy journalist Grigory Pasko, as well as the investigation into physicist Vladimir Soifer, may get a boost from the former security chief's promotion this week.

"It won't be any easier for us because Putin is a man of the system," Nikitin said by telephone from St. Petersburg. "He will try in every way to defend the system."

Nikitin has been charged by the Federal Security Service, or FSB, with divulging state secrets in a report he co-wrote with the Norwegian environmental group Bellona about the nuclear legacy of the Northern Fleet.

His case is strikingly similar to that of Pasko, a navy journalist who was charged with divulging state secrets when he filed reports to Japanese television station NHK about the Pacific Fleet's nuclear dumping practices.

Pasko spent 20 months in jail awaiting trial. On July 20, a military court convicted him of improper military conduct but immediately released him under a nationwide amnesty.

Pasko said Friday that Putin was directly involved in his case. "It was none other than his immediate subordinates who were working on this," he said at a news conference with Soifer in Moscow.

Soifer found himself under investigation last month in connection with his research into the effects of a 1985 nuclear accident on a military submarine in Chazhma Bay near Vladivostok.

Local FSB officers searched Soifer's apartment, seizing several documents, personal letters and his international passport - without a proper warrant, Soifer says.

But Soifer said he did not know whether Putin had a hand in the events, since he did not know whether the command had come from the FSB's central leadership or from regional officials.

A letter of support signed by 11 prominent scientists and State Duma Deputy Vladimir Lukin, which Soifer presented at the news conference, urges Putin and the current acting head of the FSB, Nikolai Patrushev, to end the "illegal persecution" of Soifer and other scientists.

Last month, Putin was quoted by the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda as saying that he thought the FSB should keep a close watch on environmental organizations, saying they were infiltrated by spies.

Soifer said that for the past year and a half he has been unable to continue his research because his funding from the Nuclear Power Ministry was cut - a fact he attributed to the FSB's watch over him.

He said the FSB's assertion that he mishandled classified documents was absurd.

"All these data should be declassified," he said. Under a 1997 law on state secrets, no information about accidents, the environment or health can be kept secret by the government.

He said he hoped the authorities would "acknowledge us [Soifer and Pasko] as citizens working for the good of Russia and the civilized world."

Nikitin said the three cases were part of the same problem. "There is a tendency for the FSB to look for scandalous, high-profile spy cases," he said. "There are no real spies, so in order to show their significance, they go after people involved in areas such as the environment."