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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rights Activists: Stop Arresting Scientists

Leading academics and human rights activists on Monday urged the Federal Security Service to halt what they called the "fashion" of arresting scientists for espionage.

"In our country a fashion has emerged for arresting scientists accused of spying and leaking state secrets," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a respected human rights organization.

Alexeyeva said scientists are easy targets for the Federal Security Service, or FSB, because of their dealings with foreigners.

"They can't catch real spies so they catch those we can't stop them from catching," she said at a news conference. "For one thing, it is unprofessionalism, and second it is a need to show that they are doing something."

Some 10,000 Russian scientists are contracted by foreign companies, many of them seeking financing abroad because of insufficient state funding at home, Alexeyeva said.

In a string of recent espionage cases, four scholars have been accused by the FSB of supplying state secrets to foreigners. The researchers insist the information they transferred is no longer classified and came from open sources, including published scientific journals.

One of the scientists, Igor Sutyagin, has been in detention for almost four years while his case has dragged on without a verdict.

"Sutyagin must be let out. He must be allowed to work at home and work for the good of our national security," said Valentin Danilov, one of the other three scientists. Danilov is accused of selling state secrets to a Chinese company.

A scholar at Moscow's USA and Canada Institute, Sutyagin was arrested in 1999 for passing secret military data to a British company allegedly set up as a cover for the CIA.

Sutyagin's lawyers deny the information he gave to the company contained any state secrets, despite statements by FSB experts to the contrary.

"If this information contained state secrets, show us the safe, show us the lock under which these secrets are hidden so we can examine them and see that they are secrets," lawyer Anna Stavitskaya said.

Stavitskaya claimed the FSB concluded that Sutyagin was working with U.S. secret agents, simply because "they didn't seem like British agents."

"If Sutyagin were not sitting in prison, this conclusion would be laughable," she said.

Ernst Chyorny of the Ecology and Human Rights group said the FSB should not be solving questions involving science.

"The FSB is trying to solve scientific issues in the courtroom. They don't only want to investigate what is happening, but they want to be the sole experts on these sorts of issues. This is the trouble," he said.

Four members of the Russian Academy of Sciences -- the highest authority on scientific issues, according to a presidential decree -- have signed letters to prosecutors stating that the information supplied by two of the scientists contained no state secrets.

"According to academics, there were no secrets in the information given by scientists. The FSB say there were. This is not normal. The country cannot have two authorities," Chyorny said.

Human rights advocates say the FSB has grown bolder in its prosecution of scholars under President Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB agent who headed the FSB in 1998 and 1999.