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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Top Court Slaps Down 'Pasko Law'

In what is being hailed as a major victory for human rights advocates, the military arm of the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday to invalidate a secret Defense Ministry document used to prosecute such high-profile espionage suspects as environmentalist Alexander Nikitin and military journalist Grigory Pasko.

The 1996 document, known as Order No. 55, gives a list of data that the Defense Ministry considers eligible to be classified as state secrets.

But the Supreme Court's military collegium decided that the order is "void and cannot give rise to legal consequences" because it was not properly registered with the Justice Ministry and has never been made publicly available.

Pasko's lawyers, who filed the complaint together with colleagues involved in a different treason case, were elated by the decision and predicted it could become an important deterrent against the wave of spy mania playing out in the country's courts.

"The legal basis for the prosecution's case against Pasko has collapsed," lawyer Ivan Pavlov said in a telephone interview. "Without this order, the whole system of defending state secrets is paralyzed because it will be impossible to designate information as a state secret."

Pasko was charged with treason in 1997 for giving Japanese journalists information about the dumping of nuclear materials by the Pacific Fleet. He was acquitted in 1999 and was charged with the lesser offense of abusing office. Last year, after his lawyers appealed the decision, Pasko was sentenced again on treason charges and is serving a four-year prison term in Vladivostok.

Colonel Vladimir Milovanov, an aide to the country's top military prosecutor who was present at the trial, said he supported the complaint by Pasko's defense team because Order No. 55 did not conform with a federal law on state secrets.

"The Defense Ministry violated the procedure for issuing the order: Specifically, this order was not registered with the Justice Ministry," Interfax quoted him as saying.

Russia has a federal law on state secrets, but its categories of classified information are very general and it allows ministries and other federal agencies to make up their own lists of potentially secret data. Pavlov said Order No. 55 had been "a major mechanism" for implementing the law.

The court's decision can be appealed within 10 days; if no appeal is submitted, the ruling will come into effect at the end of that time. The Defense Ministry's representative at the trial, Lieutenant Colonel Konstantin Rusanov, was quoted by Interfax as saying he did not know whether his agency would appeal the ruling.

Pavlov called the court's terms for bringing the ruling into force "a mistake," saying the order should be considered void from the moment of its issuance in August 1996. He said he would submit an appeal to make the court's ruling retroactive.

The first blow to Order No. 55 came last fall when the Supreme Court upheld a complaint filed by Nikitin's legal team and annulled 10 of the document's 650 articles. The Defense Ministry challenged the decision but the appeal was rejected.

Nikitin's lawyer Yury Shmidt was pleased with Tuesday's decision, viewing it as a continuation of the effort by him and his client.

"Our mission was to trigger a domino effect and have everybody follow suit," Shmidt said by telephone from St. Petersburg.

He added that he and Nikitin have filed a number of similar complaints to the Supreme Court, in part calling for a change in the law on state secrets that would strip federal agencies, including ministries, of the right to draw up their own lists of classified data.

"We hope to introduce some order to the mechanism of classifying data as state secrets and to decrease the total volume of such data," Shmidt said. "Our activity is aimed at eliminating the restrictions on citizens' rights to obtain information and at reducing the legal possibilities for creating spies."

Shmidt said the annulment of Order No. 55 could have significant ramifications for two jailed espionage suspects whose charges are largely based on the document -- Igor Sutyagin, a researcher with the USA and Canada Institute, and businessman Viktor Kalyadin.

Kalyadin's lawyer, Lyudmila Trunova, filed the case against Order No. 55 together with Pasko's attorneys.

Her client, the head of a Moscow-based company that traded in dual-purpose technologies, was sentenced to 14 years behind bars last October on charges of committing treason by revealing state secrets.

Kalyadin, who maintains he is innocent, was convicted of trying to sell classified documentation on a tank defense system to a U.S. company. All of the alleged mediators in the deal, including a U.S. businessman, were either not charged or received nominal sentences, Trunova told reporters last week.

She said Kalyadin's verdict was based on the conclusions of military experts who said the documentation in question fell under Order No. 55.

Yelena Yevmenova, the lawyer for scientist Valentin Danilov, who is accused of divulging classified information about space satellites to a Chinese company, welcomed the decision, although she was skeptical it could help her client.

The charges against Danilov are based on a secret order of the Education Ministry that, Yevmenova says, was also not registered by the Justice Ministry. In a telephone interview from Krasnoyarsk, Yevmenova said she plans to file a complaint within the next week asking the Supreme Court to annul the order and Tuesday's decision may raise the likelihood of a ruling in her favor. However, she feared that investigators would present new charges against her client, taking advantage of the vague wording in the law on state secrets.

Law professor and former judge Sergei Pashin said the ruling was a "good decision." He said it was too early to say whether the ruling represented an isolated case of unbiased decision-making or a more systemic change in Russia's legal system, but he added that support for the decision from the military prosecutor's office could indicates a positive trend.