Having for the past five years battled against — and lost — groundless treason charges lodged against him by Russia's secret services, Vladivostok-based military reporter and environmental whistleblower Grigory Pasko has finally stepped into the blue numbered overalls and jacket that distinguish him as an inmate in hard labour prison camp 267/41 in the town of Ussuriysk, some 100 kilometres north-east of Vladivostok.
The guilty verdict handed down for Pasko, 40, on December 25th last year, was a shock — even some members of the prosecution team had sought to reduce the charges against him. Others who watched the case — and were nonplussed by its outcome — were The International PEN Club, The International Helsinki Federation, Bellona, which has covered Pasko’s defence, and Amnesty International, which named Pasko Russia’s third prisoner of conscience since Andrei Sakharov and Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin. Pasko has also been nominated for the European Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov Award for freedom of thought.
But these honours have added up, in Russia, so far, to a 4-year-jail term and the branding of a state traitor.
Alexander Tkachenko, secretary general of Moscow’s PEN Center — who was granted special privileges by the court to participate in the defence — has visited Pasko nearly 40 times while the reporter was incarcerated during the investigation and trial, and has been to nearly every hearing concerning the case. Moscow’s PEN Center is an international writers’ organization, which also supports those writers who have suffered persecution.
"The PEN Center has several cases, similar in nature, going on at any given time," noted Tkachenko disturbingly. "But it was the colossal unfairness of the Pasko case that drew me to take on this case, which involves frequent trips across the country."
Tkachenko’s outrage at the case often prompted him to unorthodox behaviour in the courtroom.
"I recall standing up in court and yelling, ‘You are trying one of your own! These are your people — you are engaged in suicide,’" Tkachenko recounted what he told the court that day. "I told them that they are trying a man who wishes them well. The conditions in the Primorsky region where much of the Pacific Fleet is based are such that it won’t be long before we see a serious accident. And they were trying him because they’d prefer to wait for the disaster — and maybe we won’t see it, but our kids will."
"Political decisions are being made with a man’s life," he said.
, you understand, there is no one to talk to — here in the camp he can make some steps to the left and to the right, be in the fresh air, and socialize a little bit," Tkachenko said.
In his new prison barracks that sleeps 60, Pasko, characterized by the state as a dangerous traitor and spy, is sharing living space with a convicted thief, who is serving a five-year hard labour stretch for stealing a cow, apartment burglars, muggers, recidivist "hooligans," car thieves, and other petty criminals, said Tkachenko.
"He is not in with any of the murderers or rapists," said Tkachenko in an interview with Bellona Web late last week.
Tkachenko said Pasko is "thinner than usual, not because he is sick, but rather because the camp work regime has him constantly active; the camp food is usually just a water soup with some bones — prison food is, after all, prison food."
In fact, Tkachenko and Anatoly Pyshkin, Pasko’s Vladivostok-based lawyer, brought Pasko a load of groceries. Groceries, according to camp rules, are allowed to be brought by relatives, legal counsellors and friends who appear on an official visitation list. The provisions brought that day by Tkachenko and Pyshkin — in accord with the prisoners’ etiquette Pasko is learning — were shared among his barracks mates, giving the day a somewhat celebratory air.
And cause for celebration may be near at hand: By law, the time Pasko has spent waiting in detention, while the trial dragged on, was counted as part of the conviction term. Additionally, proceedings for his early release on good behaviour will begin on December 25th this year, Pasko’s St Petersburg-based lawyer Ivan Pavlov said. On that day, the prison administration is to pass a request for release to the courts, who then have a month to decide.
In the best scenario, as Pavlov explained, the court could convene on December 26th and stamp Pasko’s walking papers. What will likely complicate matters, Pavlov said, are briefs that will be submitted by the FSB that could delay Pasko’s release, or sink it altogether.
"But we intend to be right on top of this whole process and fight every ridiculous brief the FSB submits," said Pavlov in a telephone interview from St Petersburg.
In November, Pasko will also be allowed one of the three visits permitted by the camp authorities a year — four if he is on good behaviour status — with his wife and family. On such visits, which last three days, Tkachenko said, the prisoner and his family are given private quarters to stay in.
In the meantime, said Tkachenko, the schedule is rigorous: Prisoners are awakened at 6:00 and a count is conducted by guards. When the count is complete, prisoners are sent to callisthenics and the shower. By 7:00 a.m. they are to be in the dining hall for breakfast, which is finished by 7:30. After that, they tidy up their breakfast dishes, and by 8:00 they are at their work posts, where they will remain until a one-hour lunch break at 1:00 p.m.
At 2:00 p.m., they are back at work until 5:00. Dinner is served at 7:00 p.m. and after that, until lights out, they are expected to tidy the barracks and clean and mend their overalls, which may have been ripped or dirtied during the day. Lights out is at 10:00 p.m.
A prominent prisoner
In a recent interview in Vladivostok, Pyshkin and Morozova spoke in an informal strategy meeting about possible attempts by guards to booby-trap Pasko’s chance for early release on good behaviour — possibly the last remaining chance for this innocent man to avoid serving a full sentence.
"Smoking is prohibited, so a guard could place cigarettes — or other contraband — among Pasko’s possessions," said Pyshkin. "There also may be guards who could try to pick a fight with him — all of these things could hurt his chances for early release on good behaviour."
But Morozova broke in that her husband would not give in to such provocations. "He is a cultured man, an educated man, and would never allow himself this sort of behaviour."
Indeed, in a world of prisons where education, cultured behaviour and the lack of a criminal history can prove fatal, Tkachenko said it is precisely Pasko’s lack of rough edges that has assured not only his survival but adoration among fellow inmates, if not the prison administration itself.
"These prisoners and guards were expecting him — they watch TV too — and it is universally accepted among them that he is innocent of these charges," said Tkachenko.
"Plus, the prisoners understand they have a journalist in their midst — someone who knows the language of the courts, someone who can help them."
And so, many nearly illiterate prisoners, who wouldn’t have a chance of piecing together a legal complaint or an appeal have turned to Pasko, Tkachenko said, and now the reporter spends most of his Sundays — the one free day the prisoners have — writing legal documents for his fellow inmates.
"They respect him for that," said Tkachenko.
Tkachenko added that each prisoner in the colony is working toward his own freedom and, hopefully, early release.
"I don’t think any of them are going to want to jeopardize that by causing harm to the colony’s most famous, and by all accounts, well-liked prisoner," Tkachenko added.
Danger in the colony?
"Everything that is happening with Pasko in the prison colony is happening according to law — we have not arranged any special treatment," said Tkachenko. As such, Pasko is exposed to the same dangers as any other prisoner in the colony.
"Anything could happen," said Tkachenko. "But my impression is that he is not threatened by any serious danger and that violence will not be an issue." While saying this, Tkachenko peppered his speech with generous portions of "tfu, tfu, tfu!" a Russian equivalent for "knock-on-wood."
According to Tkachenko, the greatest danger does not lie in the camp at all, but in Moscow, 10,000 kilometres to the West, where it may be decided to "remove" Pasko from this embarrassing legal equation altogether — but Tkachenko admitted himself this was far-fetched.
"There is only one danger — that someone from the top decides to get rid of him," he said. "But why would they decide to get rid of him? They’ve already punished him so much, how much farther can they go? He never knew any secrets and doesn’t know any now. The only danger is from the top, from evil minds."
As for dangers from other prisoners, Tkachenko said: "They have their own law and they know who he is. Nothing will happen to him because of other prisoners."
Hope for a political prisoner
One thing that has helped Pasko adjust to life in the camp, according to Tkachenko, is his 17 years of military service.
"The kind of schedule they impose at the camp would drive me crazy, but the routine is something he is used to. He can wake up at six in the morning," Tkachenko said. "It’s not so much that the routine suits him, though, it’s that he’s made peace with it, even though it is baffling to him. There are horrifying and cruel things in the camps — but he has made peace with this and understands that he has to live through it with dignity, and that it will end soon. Such is fate."
The worst for a political prisoner, Tkachenko said, however, is "the thought that people on the outside have forgotten about you, that they are no longer working for your cause and helping you gain freedom".
"As I told him at parting, ‘No one you have become friends with during this, no one you have helped during this or whose life you have touched will refuse you. Remember that.’"