Thoughts from the luggage compartment

Publish date: December 15, 2000

Written by: Jon Gauslaa

Some days ago Bellona's legal advisor, Jon Gauslaa, found himself stuck inside the luggage compartment of a Russian Tupolev 134. He spent the time reflecting over the recent legal and political development in Russia.

"Have you ever seen Dallas from a DC 9 at night", Texan born singer Joe Ely asked back in 1981. I haven’t, but I have gazed down at the Northern Caucasian wasteland from the luggage compartment of a Tupolev 134.

One afternoon in December 2000 I had successfully negotiated myself into that week’s last flight to Moscow from Vladikavkaz, a Russian stronghold near the Chechen border. I had, however, to be content with a place in the luggage compartment. When you find yourself in such a situation, you can’t stop your mind from wandering. No wonder then, that I started to analyse the recent legal development in Russia.

A major setback?
Three months have passed since Aleksandr Nikitin was finally acquitted by the Presidium of the Russian Supreme Court. This was by many, including myself, hailed as a major victory for the rule of law. However, at least two recent Court decisions may raise serious doubts about the direction of the future legal development in Russia.

On November 22, the Russian Military Supreme Court cancelled the Vladivostok Military Court’s acquittal of Grigory Pasko, who had been accused of treason through espionage, for having disclosed allegedly "secret information" about the Russian Pacific Fleet’s handling of radioactive waste. The case was returned to the Vladivostok Court, where it shall be evaluated by another judge than the one who had acquitted Pasko.

This decision is alarming, because the environmental aspects of Pasko’s case are just as striking as in the Nikitin-case. According to the Russian law on State Secrets, information of ecological relevance can not pertain to state secrets. Thus, it is hard to imagine how information related to the handling of radioactive waste can be considered as a state secret, even under the present Russian legislation. It is equally hard to understand how the prosecution can claim that Pasko’s intention with his actions was to damage the outward security of Russia.

In order to get a conviction, the prosecution has to prove that these conditions are fulfilled. However, any independent Court should realise that they are not. The fact that the Military Supreme Court returned the case to Vladivostok for a second trial, rather than confirming the acquittal, gives therefore serious reasons for concern about its outcome.

Then, on December 7, the Moscow City Court convicted American businessman Edmund Pope, who had been accused of trying to buy secret information about Russian torpedoes, to 20 years of hard labour for espionage. He was, however, pardoned for reasons of health and returned to the US only one week after the conviction.

Mr. Pope may well not be as innocent as Mother Theresa. Still, the circumstances surrounding his conviction seem dubious. The argument of the defence that the disputed information was already available in the public domain does for instance not seem to have been evaluated by the Court. Also the secrecy surrounding the case and the prosecutor’s repeated public attacks on Mr. Pope and his attorney throughout the trial, raises doubt whether he got a fair hearing or not.

The last acquittal?
So the thought that sprang to mind while my teeth were chattering with cold, five miles above the Caucasian wasteland, was that perhaps the Russian daily Segodnya, who denoted the Nikitin-acquittal as "the first and the last acquittal", was right. Its allegation was based on the fact that Nikitin’s case had been evaluated under the legislation that was a result of the liberal political climate of the early 1990’ies, but now this climate was gone.

Maybe it had something to do with the vodka that one of the other passengers in the luggage compartment had offered me, but suddenly I saw everything very clearly:

The Russian legal system is still as jeopardised as the ticket reservation system at Northern Caucasian airfields. The acquittal of Nikitin actually suited the new sovereign of the Kremlin well, as it gave the Russian legal system a much-needed injection of credibility. This will, in its turn, actually make it easier for the State to deal with troublesome individuals like Mr. Pasko.

The conviction of Mr. Pope signals that the Russian State are willing to track down anyone who dares to challenge what it considers as its interests, and come after them with a vengeance. By granting Pope pardon, the sovereign has retained his image, as a person Westerners may find somewhat authoritarian judged from their standards, but still as a sensible person. However, appearances are deceptive, and what we are witnessing now is a 1917 in slow motion…

The Tupolev touching down at Vnukovo airfield near Moscow interrupted my thoughts, as one of the other persons in the luggage compartment came tumbling down on me.

This brought me back to reality… or maybe I had been there all the time?

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