An outrageous decision

Publish date: January 3, 2002

Written by: Jon Gauslaa

The conviction of environmental journalist Grigory Pasko has lead to an outrage both inside and outside Russia. Still, the prosecutor believes the punishment is too lenient and has thus, appealed the verdict.

Grigory Pasko was on December 25 convicted for treason through espionage by the Pacific Fleet Court in Vladivostok, and taken into custody in court and placed in detention.

The court did not consider Pasko to have leaked any secret information abroad, but convicted him for having possessed notes that he made at a naval meeting he attended while covering it for his newspaper, ‘Boyevaya Vakhta’ in September 1997. The court believed that Pasko later “intended” to hand the notes over to a Japanese journalist, and that the spreading of them could have harmed the battle readiness of the Fleet.

Thus, even if the court threw out nine of the ten charges against Pasko, it still sentenced him to serve four years in a high-security prison (eight years below the minimum penalty for treason prescribed Article 275 of the Russian Penal Code).

The verdict is based on a secret Ministry of Defence decree (055:96) even though the Russian Constitution bars the use of secret legislation in criminal cases and despite the fact that the Supreme Court recently has stated that the said decree is “invalid and illegal”. The court’s decision has also created a public outrage.

“A bogus case”

The Pasko case has underscored concerns of media freedom in post-Soviet Russia and came against the background of a spate of cases by the FSB against ecologists and researchers after Vladimir Putin, a former FSB chief, became head of state.

In its December 27-editorial, the Washington Post characterised the case as “the most flagrant” of a “series of bogus espionage cases against independent journalists and academics” initiated by the Russian security police (the FSB). “[T]he official charges against him were as transparently trumped up as his reporting [of the navy’s dumping of liquid nuclear waste] was embarrassing to the Russian military”.

The newspaper also focused on the fact that Pasko, like several other individuals targeted by the FSB in recent years, “has seen his case drag on for years”.

Washington Post expressed its hope that it would be possible to convince Putin “that his government cannot simultaneously conduct secret espionage trials of journalists and intellectuals, and demand the right to take part as an equal partner in decision-making by the Western democracies”. To convince Putin would however, take more than the voices of human rights activists and Russian parliamentarians, “he needs to get the message more forcefully from Western governments, starting with the Bush administration”, it concluded.

— The judgment should be revised

Whether such a message has been passed over from the Bush administration is not known. It has however, along with other western governments including the British and the German, followed the case closely. On December 28, U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said that the department had noted that prominent human rights activists in Russia have aimed that Mr. Pasko is being punished for legitimate journalistic activity.

— Our hope is that his appeal will be heard promptly and in accordance with Russian law and the Constitution, and that, as a humanitarian gesture, he might be released from detention pending his appeal. We continue to watch that case with interest, Reeker said.

At a news conference the same day a spokesman of the German government said that German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer was preparing a letter to Russian counterpart Igor Ivanov expressing German concerns about press freedoms and civil rights in Russia after the conviction. — The Russians should look at ways to revise the judgment, he said.

— A blow to free expression

Human rights groups called the conviction the latest in a series of blows to free expression by Russia’s security services. “The country still does not fully understand what road the FSB is taking it down”, a letter by the Moscow Helsinki Group said, referring to the Federal Security Service, the successor to the Soviet KGB. Signers of the letter included Yelena Bonner, the wife of the late Andrei Sakharov.

Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defence Fund, which campaigns for human rights, told Ekho Moskvy radio that Pasko’s conviction “can be interpreted as a victory for the intelligence services lobby over justice and sober reasoning”.

Natalia Mironova of the Movement for nuclear safety in Chelyabinsk, Siberia, said that Grigory Pasko is the first ‘politic prisoner’ in the new Russia.

On January 7 a number of Russian environmental and human rights organisations will conduct an action of protest against the verdict, in Moscow at the Lubyanski Square at 2 PM, and also in a number of other cities. Moreover, on January 25, the Day of Students and the birthday of singer Vladimir Visotski, there will be a Day of Remembrance for Freedom of Speech, with a series of performances all over Russia.

— The triumph of injustice

— I understand how a man feels who is condemned for something he is not guilty of, said the speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament, Sergei Mironov, in repudiating Mr. Pasko’s conviction. A few days before verdict, Mironov said to NTV that he would urge President Putin to grant a pardon should Pasko lose his case.

Boris Reznik, deputy head of the Duma’s information policy comity, speaking on Ekho Moskvy radio on December 26, said the verdict demonstrates the flaws in the Russian legislation. — It amounts to the triumph of injustice and arbitrariness in our homeland.

Reznik added that the verdict proves the hypocrisy of the Russian Navy. — The Pasko case was prosecuted at the time of a frightful scandal at the Pacific Fleet. Top officers were attempting to dispatch abroad a top secret radar detection equipment. In effect, secrets worth billions of dollars nearly went overseas. A criminal investigation was launched into it, but they have yet to find a single guilty person. Pasko was declared a spy although the real spies in the form of top officers went unpunished, Reznik said.

— A black mark on the judicial system

The case, one of several in past years against whistle-blowers for allegedly revealing state secrets in Russia, also drew protests from international based public watchdogs, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalist.

William Schultz, director of Amnesty International USA, said that the case “has been a window into a justice system that continues to operate in secrecy and in the service of political masters rather than the law.” Amnesty International said at the start of the re-trial of Pasko that it would adopt him as a prisoner of conscience should he be sentenced.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) called the verdict an outrage. — Today’s ruling demonstrates that the trial of Grigory Pasko was nothing more than a political vendetta against a journalist who made public information that embarrassed the Russian military but served the public, its director, Joel Simpson said in a statement.

— The legal basis for the trial was questionable, the evidence was faulty, and in the end Pasko was convicted after being tried twice on the same charges, making him the clear victim of double jeopardy, noted CPJ Europe program co-ordinator Alex Lupis. — Pasko’s detention is a black mark on the Russian justice system and further undermines President Putin’s stated commitment to press freedom.

— Four years too lenient

Spokesmen of the FSB and the Russian Navy did not share the above-referred views. Igor Dygalo, an aide to Russia’s naval commander-in-chief, denied any ecological aspect to the case and said Pasko was tried as a military officer, not a journalist.

— Every naval serviceman is required to protect state secrets, he told a Kremlin-connected news web site

— It is wrong to evaluate Pasko’s actions as those of just a journalist. He is a naval officer who took an oath of loyalty to his country.

Alexander Zdanovich, spokesman for the FSB, agreed with Mr. Dygalo. — Pasko was taken to court not as a journalist who was gathering information, but as an officer with access to secret information, who swore an oath of loyalty to Russia and a pledge to keep safe information that would become known to him, he told Radio Russia.

Aleksandr Kondakov, who conducted the case for the prosecution, was shocked by the mildness of the sentence. He has launched an appealed for a tougher punishment for Pasko, saying his four-year jail term for treason is far too lenient.

— The court excluded without grounds a series of episodes incriminating Pasko and handed down an excessively lenient sentence, the prosecutor’s office in the Pacific Fleet said in comments made public on December 29.

Pasko hangs on

Pasko’s own reaction to the conviction was that it was a punishment for his reports on the environmental abuses by the Russian Navy. — I find the sentence absolutely incomprehensible, he said before being handcuffed and led from the court.

His lawyer Ivan Pavlov said that the verdict is illegal and that it has been appealed by the defence. — We have asked the Military Supreme Court to overturn the verdict and cease the criminal case, he said. Pavlov said the defence by the end of January would file a more detailed appeal after it has studied the 1,000-page files from the trial.

— He hangs on, Pavlov said when being asked how Pasko feels. Pasko is reported to have asked his wife, Galina Morozova, to bring him pens and paper for writing.

Pasko wrote about his experiences during his 18 months in detention ahead of his first trial. At a news conference to publicise the book, ‘Case No. 10: Grigory Pasko against the FSB’, Pasko said that Russia was gripped by a “spy mania”, accusing the FSB of persecuting people like himself to justify their existence.


Grigory Pasko was arrested in November 1997 and acquitted by the Pacific Fleet Court in July 1999 of treason charges, but found guilty of abuse of office. He appealed the verdict seeking a full acquittal, but so did the prosecution insisting he was a spy. Russia’s Military Supreme Court cancelled the verdict and sent the case back to a re-trial in November 2000. The re-trial started on July 11, 2001 and ended on December 25, with Pasko being acquitted on nine out of ten charges, but still sentenced to four years. Both sides have appealed the verdict. It may take many months before the appeal case will be heard.

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