In a blatant violation of Russian law, judicial procedure and standard travel practices for Russian citizens, environmental journalist and whistle-blower Grigory Pasko was rejected in his request to secure an international passport to visit his supporters abroad.
Paskowho was released on parole for good behaviour in Januaryis being denied the passport, according to him and his advocates, because Russias secret services wish to heap yet more mud on him as he works to clear his name of the espionage charges that landed him in jail.
According to the alleged instructions distributed to passport officials who dealt with Paskos applicationabout which other travel authorities had never heard ofparolees are ineligible for international passports.
The conflict sparked off yet another clash with Russias security services and highlighted the arbitrary policies of Russias unwieldy and lumbering Soviet-style bureaucracies, who seem to spare no expense on the harassment of this alarm-ringing reporter. Not coincidentally, visa and immigration issues, as well as the issuing of national and international passports to Russian citizens, are regulated by the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs.
On Wednesday Pasko sent a complaint about the refusal of his passport application to Moscows Lyublyansky District Court. The complaint was written by his lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, who is also the director of St. Petersburgs Environmental Rights Center Bellona, or ERC.
I am starting to feel pressure again, but this isnt new, we Pasko and his defence team have dealt with all of that before, Pasko told Bellona Web in an interview Wednesday. This is the next stage of petty and mean revenge. They dont let me meet people who have supported me. I have three invitations from Amnesty International, two from Reporters Sans Frontieres Reporters without borders, and a number of invitations from different PEN centres which are all located outside Russia.
Pasko filed all the necessary documents for an international passport in April, and anticipating it would be ready within the legal time frame of one month, he was preparing to visit Bellonas central office in Oslowhich organized his defence at his last trialat the beginning of May.
But it was not until Tuesday, July 8thfour months after he filed his applicationthat Pasko received official notice that his request had been turned down by office No. 3 of the Visas and Registration Department of Moscows South-Eastern District, a local branch of Russian police-controlled international passport and immigration authority known by its Russian acronym as OVIR.
In an interview with Bellona Web, Colonel Vladimir Zubchenko, the head of district OVIR No.3, defended his decision to turn Pasko down by referring to an internal instruction.
According to Zubchenko, this internal instruction, issued in 1998, banned providing international passports to people released on parole. In an official letter to Pasko, Zubchenko wrote that a release on parole for good behaviour from serving a punishment isnt a full release from the punishment.
There is an instruction, and Im fulfilling it, Zubchenko said.
According to Paskos supporters, this instruction, which does not have the force of law, was simply cooked up in 1998 by the OVIR, which is an organisation known for creating arbitrary hassles.
Passport Offices Internal Instruction Illegal
Paskos lawyer Pavlov confirmed the legal instability of OVIRs claim.
All these internal instructions have no legal significance, Pavlov said in a Wednesday interview. The head of OVIR No. 3 is simply making up terms which dont exist. The law says it in black and white—release on parole is a release from punishment. And there is no full or partial release.
To test Zubchenkos assertions about the 1998 internal instruction, Bellona Web called several Russian tour agencies and learned that release on parole isnt usually an obstacle to getting a passport to travel abroad.
Three tour firms interview by Bellona Web showed Zubchenkos internal instruction didnt hold much water. The Moscow-based agency Shelkovy Put, as well as the St. Petersburg-based Eurobaltour and Konti-Plus, told Bellona Web that they have successfully assisted parolees in getting international passports. One of the tour firms even went so far as to confirm that people who have been convicted of a crime and given a suspended sentence are eligible to leave the country.
Paskos supporters say that his passport fiasco is yet another attempt by the Federal Security Service, or FSB—the heir of the notorious KGB secret service—to violate his constitutional rights after his release.
They give passports by dozens, stacks, to people who have been released on parole, said Pasko.
In my case, OVIR bureaucrats are overcautious, he said wryly.
The complaint prepared by Pavlov stresses that OVIRs decision is of a clear anti-legal nature.
The Russian law On the order of exit from the Russian Federation and entry to the Russian Federation stipulates that a person convicted for a crime can only be restricted from leaving the country until he or she has served the terms of his or her punishment, or until he or she is released from punishment.
According to the complaint filed by Pasko and Pavlov at the Lyublyansky District Court, Paskos release on parole is precisely the type of release from punishment that is consistent with this law. This, according to Pavlov, is both a literal interpretation of the law found in Chapter 12, Article 79, in the Russian Criminal Code, entitled Release From Punishment, and a systematic interpretation—court practice also considers release on parole as a type of release from punishment.
The logic of our complaint is very simple, and we will win in any district court, said Pavlov Wednesday. This lawsuit will cost OVIR—literally.
The Pasko Case
Grigory Pasko, an investigative journalist who worked for the Russian Pacific Fleets newspaper Boyevaya Vakhta, or Battle Watch, was arrested on treason charges in Vladivostok on November 20th 1997. The FSB accused Pasko of espionage over his work with Japanese journalists, through which he made public information on nuclear safety problems in the Pacific Fleet.
He had first drawn the attention of Russian security services when he passed Japanese television a videotape made in 1993 that showed Pacific Fleet ships illegally dumping nuclear waste in the Sea of Japan. He continued to report on the Pacific Fleets irresponsible handling of its nuclear waste, which led to his first arrest by the FSB, who branded him as a traitor and a spy. In 1999, he was convicted for abusing his official authority for his supposedly negligent contacts with the Japanese media. Pasko was immediately amnestied, but he appealed the conviction to the Russian Supreme Court on the basis that an innocent man cannot be amnestied.
The unexpected result of that appeal was a new trial and a conviction in December 2001 on the same charges of treason that Pasko had earlier been amnestied for. His attorneys, Bellona and human rights groups throughout the world rightfully maintained that these charges were fabricated by the FSB and relied heavily on two now-defunct secret decrees by the Ministry of Defence—Nos. 010 and 055.
The basis of Pasko’s second conviction was a set of notes he made while attending a meeting of naval brass as a reporter for Boyevaya Vakhta. In December 2001, the Pacific Fleet court in Vladivostok convicted Pasko for intending to pass the notes—which allegedly concerned secret naval manoeuvres—to the Japanese media. He was sentenced to four years imprisonment in a hard labour camp, but was paroled for good behaviour after serving two thirds of his sentence by a decision of the Russian Far-Eastern Ussuriysk City Court on January 23rd, 2003.
In order to clear his name of the unlawful conviction—and having exhausted his means of doing so in Russia—Pasko and his lawyers have sent his case to the Strasbourg Human Rights Court.
Private Life, Public Hero
Since his case began in 1998, Pasko practically ceased to live a private life and has become yet another public example of how easily human rights are violated in Russia today. Even the comparatively small issue of a passport denial—which for any other private citizen could be chalked up to another Russian-style bureaucratic mishap—is, relative to the Pasko case, cause for major alarm in the human rights sector. During the Pasko trial, even remotely moderate victories by the defence team meant a change for the better for the whole country, and small farewells to the Soviet absurd.
For instance, it was one of the complaints by the Paskos defence that led to the abolition of a Defence Ministry decree that prohibited military personnel from associating with foreigners. Under this decree, known as Decree No. 010, even a Russian soldier visiting relatives in neighbouring Ukraine could be jailed.
A separate complaint by the Paskos defence nullified another Defence Ministry decree, No. 055, which—in violation of Russian law, including the Russian Constitution—made virtually everything about the military secret, even information about military casualties. According to the logic of this decree, the fact that the Kursk submarine sank in the Barents Sea in August 2002 was secret, too, even though it made front-page news throughout the world.
After Paskos arrest, there are literally no journalists in the Far East who would dare write about radiation safety in the Pacific Fleet. Pasko is now the editor-in-chief of the Environment and Rights magazine published by the St. Petersburg-based ECR—thousands of kilometres away from Vladivostok—but it could be safely said that more conflicts with the authorities await him in the future.
The actions of OVIR come not only as a violation of Paskos rights, but as a stark example of how easily Russia forgets the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—of which it is a signatory—which stipulates that everyone has the right to leave any country, including his or her own, and to return to his or her country (Article 13.2).