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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Duma Takes Aim at Spies and NGOs

ReutersImages from Rossia's broadcast of what it said was a British diplomat picking up a rock with a hidden transmitter.
The State Duma said Tuesday that it would lodge a protest with the British Parliament and a European security body over purported British spy activities, while the Foreign Ministry was tight-lipped over whether four diplomats accused of spying would be expelled.

The Federal Security Service, or FSB, announced Monday that it had uncovered a spy ring late last year that included four mid-ranking diplomats at the British Embassy and their Russian contact. The diplomats are accused of downloading information onto hand-held computers from transmitters hidden in fake rocks.

One of the diplomats, the FSB said, had authorized British government grants to 12 Russian nongovernmental organizations, including the Moscow Helsinki Group and the New Eurasia Foundation.

The British Foreign Office has expressed concern and surprise at the claims but insisted that its dealings with the NGOs had been proper.

Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said that deputies would probably pass a resolution denouncing the affair on Wednesday.

"We have witnessed not only espionage activity by subjects of Britain, but also their financing of nongovernmental organizations," Gryzlov said, Interfax reported.

"We feel indignant at the situation, and tomorrow we are likely to adopt an appeal to our colleagues from the British Parliament."

Later Tuesday, FSB deputy director Yury Gorbunov and FSB chief spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko spoke to deputies about the case at a closed meeting.

Afterward, Vladimir Vasilyev, the chairman of the Duma's Security Committee, said deputies would ask the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to consider whether British intelligence had helped fund Russian NGOs, Interfax reported.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party, said the FSB allegations were proof that Western intelligence had been trying to weaken Russia by funding Russian NGOs, Interfax reported.

His party's Duma deputies adopted a statement that demanded the restoration of the KGB. "Such actions were impossible during the times of the KGB," it read. "We call for the reinforcement of the security agencies and conscription to [create] a new KGB."

The Foreign Ministry refused to say whether it was planning to expel the diplomats.

"As of now, we aren't commenting about the issue," ministry spokesman Vladimir Tyurkin said, then hung up the telephone.

It remained unclear whether the diplomats were still in Russia. Igor Prelin, a retired colonel of the Foreign Intelligence Service, suggested that Britain might recall them and not wait for the Foreign Ministry to declare them personae non grata, Interfax reported.

If Russia expels them, London is likely to respond by expelling Russian diplomats.

The FSB's allegations increased pressure on NGOs and came less than two weeks after President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill that will increase state control over their activities.

Duma Deputy Viktor Ilyukhin, a Communist, said the allegations were made public in an apparent attempt to justify the restrictions imposed by the NGO law.

Yury Dzhibladze, head of the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights, said authorities could shut down a Russian NGO that received a grant authorized by a foreign spy under diplomatic cover if one of two conditions were met: if the authorities proved the NGO knew the diplomat was a spy, or if they proved the NGO divulged state secrets in exchange for the money.

Dzhibladze said his organization received British funding from 2003 to 2005, confirming a FSB statement.

Moscow Helsinki Group head Lyudmila Alexeyeva said her group had accepted a £23,000 ($41,000) grant through the embassy in 2004, but she said British diplomat Marc Doe had not signed the payment order, contrary to the FSB's claims, Nezavisimaya Gazeta said.

Doe authorized the grant in October 2004, Moskovsky Komsomolets reported.

Alexeyeva said the money was spent on inspecting prisons in 20 regions.

The biggest grant authorized by the embassy -- £50,000 -- went to Syostry, or Sisters, an NGO that assists rape victims, Izvestia said, citing the FSB.

Izvestia on Tuesday quoted an FSB spokesman as saying that many intelligence services tried to use NGOs in their own interests. "We haven't dealt much with NGOs so far, but now they will be an object of close attention," he said. "If a criminal connection is proven, then justice will get in on the act."

It remained unclear on Tuesday what kind of information the diplomats were accused of downloading from two fake rocks that the FSB said it had detected. The FSB seized one rock and said British agents retrieved the other.

Their Russian contact has been detained and acknowledged his role in the espionage, the FSB said. The Russian was recruited while on a trip abroad, Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported.

The seized transmitter contained four batteries and was hidden in a fake rock measuring 30 centimeters to 40 centimeters long, the FSB said.

State-run Rossia television, which first reported the claims Sunday night, showed FSB footage of what it said was a British diplomat kicking a fake rock in a suburban park and then picking it up.

The purported British diplomats wore tracksuits and wool hats and carried backpacks when they visited the rock site.

The FSB said the diplomats' wireless connections with the stone were in spurts lasting about two seconds. A transmission reached only 25 meters at the most, and therefore was difficult for the FSB to intercept, Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported.