Moment of truth closing in

Publish date: November 28, 2001

Written by: Jon Gauslaa

On November 29 the Pasko-trial will enter its last and decisive stage. Whether the Court will dare to base its verdict on the law, or in stead will give in to pressure from forces urging for a conviction remains to be seen.

The re-trial of Grigory Pasko is still going on at the Court of the Russian Pacific Fleet in Vladivostok. Throughout the proceedings it has been clarified that the charges against him do not endure a critical light. They are based on the Ministry of Defence’s decree 055:96, a normative act that the Russian Supreme Court on November 6, 2001 characterised as "invalid and illegal". Besides, it has been proven that the FSB did not only illegally collect the ‘evidence’ against Pasko, but also downright falsified important parts of it.

From a legal point of view it should therefore not be difficult to predict the outcome of the case, especially since the Court has handled the trial fairly reasonable. Several recent events may however, seem somewhat disturbing.

Proceedings delayed
Back in July the Court appointed a group of phonetic experts from the Russian Ministry of the Interior (MVD) whose task was to evaluate whether Pasko speaks on the FSB’s recordings of his telephone conversations or not. Although Pasko says that he does the talking, the expert evaluation has to be carried out, since the Military Supreme Court in its cancellation of the first Pasko-verdict focused particularly on the need for such an evaluation.

The experts have – for no particular reason – been considerably delayed. They were first expected to present their conclusion in September, but it was then announced that they would continue working until late October, which caused a one-month break in the trial. When appearing in Court on October 29, they asked for another month. Because of this, the trial has been postponed to November 29, 2001, and may well continue throughout December and perhaps even into January 2002 before the verdict will be announced.

The reiterated – and completely unjustified – delays can hardly be explained in any other way than as an attempt to exhaust Pasko and his defence, and to disintegrate Pasko’s support. The FSB applied the same tactics in the Nikitin-case, but since the venue of that case was St. Petersburg, it was possible to maintain the attention around the case and the support for Nikitin. It is obviously more challenging to achieve the same when the venue is Vladivostok in the Russian Far East.

Jacks in the box
The continued delays are not the only recent incidents that have raised concern within Pasko’s defence-team. In early November two high-ranking witnesses, rear admiral and Duma representative, Valery Dorogin, and the deputy commander of the Russian Navy and former head of the Pacific Fleet, admiral Zakharenko, appeared in Court to give their testimonies. The move took the defence by surprise as the admirals neither were entered on the list of witnesses, nor had been interrogated when the case was being investigated back in 1997-98. But now they popped up like some kinds of ‘Jacks in the box’.

The defence became even more astonished when it heard what the admirals had to say. Both focused on one of the ten episodes Pasko is charged with. In September 1997 Pasko attended a meeting of the Military Council of the Pacific Fleet, in order to cover it for his newspaper "Boyevaya Vaktha". He took some notes for the possible use in a later article.

According to the indictment Pasko kept the said notes at home and later transferred them to Japan. The prosecution is however, not even close to prove that the notes were transferred (they were on the contrary confiscated at the search of Pasko’s flat on November 20, 1997…) or that he had any intentions to transfer them.

Admirals exceed state secret experts
When being shown the notes, which are totally incomprehensible for all other persons than the one who wrote them, Mr. Dorogin claimed that they contain a whole lot of secret information. Mr. Zakharenko went one step beyond, as he declared that the notes contain ‘extremely secret’ information about the strategic use of the forces of the Pacific Fleet.

Through these statements the admirals did by far exceed the conclusion of the state secret experts. According to them the notes reveal secret information ‘only’ about "the real names of military units" and "the activity of radio-electronic warfare units". The experts could however not substantiate these allegations when being interrogated in Court. It then became clear that their conclusion was entirely based on the above-mentioned secret, un-registered, invalid and illegal decree 055:96.

The reason why the admirals appeared in Court in order to give their testimonies is not known. It is however noteworthy that both of them were especially flown in from Moscow, apparently on the order of the chairman of the Pacific Fleet Court himself, General Volkov.

Court under pressure?
The defence has also noted a recent negative change in the Court’s attitude towards Pasko. The Court has for instance started to cross-examine him about several episodes, although it previously has declared that it has no further questions regarding these episodes. The defence fears that the reason behind the Court’s changed attitude might be that the judges are under pressure from the FSB or from officers within the HQs of the Russian Navy or the Pacific Fleet, who after all are the superiors of the judges. And it is a fact that Pasko’s critical journalism about the Fleet’s handling of radioactive waste has created powerful enemies for him within these circles.

Before the Court took a break in the end of September the trial developed very much in Pasko’s favour. It was confirmed that the FSB has committed several law violations throughout the investigation. No witnesses said anything that incriminated Pasko, and the ‘state secret experts’ were almost ridiculed in Court. Consequently, the chances for a conviction occurred to be rather slim and one can not rule out that this might have been an incitement for some of Pasko’s enemies to insert pressure on the Court.

It is obviously too early to draw any conclusion regarding these issues, and it remains to be seen whether the Court will base its verdict on the law and the facts of the case, or if it in stead will give in to the possible pressure. The end of the trial is closing in, and so is the moment of truth for the legal development in Russia. Will it continue towards the rule of law or will it slide back into the abyss of arbitrariness? The upcoming verdict may not give the whole answer to this question, but it will definitively give an important part of it.

Grigory Pasko was arrested on November 20, 1997 on charges of espionage on behalf of the Japanese TV-channel NHK. He was acquitted in July 1999, but convicted of ‘abuse of official authority’ and freed under an amnesty. Seeking a full acquittal, Pasko appealed, but so did the prosecution, insisting he was a spy. On November 21, 2000 the Russian Military Supreme Court sent the case back for a re-trial at the Pacific Fleet Court. The re-trial started on July 11, 2001, and it now seems unlikely that it will be determined this year.