The high courts decision, said observers, puts to rest the seemingly absurd and endless game of hot potato as Moscows Presnya District Court and Moscows city court batted the ecologists complaint between them, claiming they did not have jurisdiction to review it.
More than a year ago, ERC Bellona filed a complaint with the Presnya District courtwhich has jurisdiction over cases concerning the Ministry of Defenceregarding the Chief Command of the Russian Navy to de-classify socially significant information about accidents aboard Soviet Era nuclear submarines.
The District Court refused to review the complaint, writing in its written rejection that this case, which concerns government secrets, must be considered by the Moscow City Court. In its turn, the Moscow City Court stated on August 28th 2003 that the ERC Bellonas declaration, by law, does not fall under the jurisdiction of a court of a city of federal significance. The decision further read that the complaint should be handed over to the Presnya District Court, tying the legal knot.
But with the Supreme Courts December 25th decision, the knot has been untied.
The courts decision will become a legal precedent for cases concerning the declassification of socially significant information, said ERC Bellona director, attorney Ivan Pavlov, in a recent interview.
The Supreme Court has now admitted the correctness of our original position. Our complaint must be reviewed by the District Court because the information used by Bellona, in accordance with the legislation of the Russian Federation, bears no relation to state secrets.
ERC Bellona will now file a so-called supervisory complaint with the presidium of the Moscow City Court on the decision of the District Court, the argumentation of which will be founded on the determination of Supreme Court.
The Defence Ministrywhich is a legal party to this casedid not even turn up for the Supreme Court hearing. We are confident that as a result the Moscow City court will hand down a positive decision on our complaint. The Defence Ministry will be obligated to declassify information about the accidents.
Bellona Demand Declassification
The round of legal volleyball was sparked at the beginning of 2003 when ERC Bellona sent a letter to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov in which the organization called on the Ministry to make public information about accidents aboard Soviet nuclear submarines that took place between 1961 and 1985an average of about one every two years.
The letter to Ivanov read, in part, that according to information that ERC Bellona has obtained from various open sources, the nuclear reactors of the nuclear submarines tactically numbered K-19, K-387, TK-208, K-279, K-447, K-508, K-209, K-210, K-216, K-316, K-462, K-38, K-37, K-371, and K-367 suffered at various times accidents and technical failures. It is known that as a result of these accidents, people suffered and radioactive emissions in the environment were registered. Despite this, the full results of these emergencies remain to this time concealed from the public.
These subs, which are laid up at Russian Northern Fleet bases, have been retired and await full dismantlementmany with their spent nuclear fuel still onboard. Others, like the infamous K-19, have been de-fuelled and are slated for destruction. Still others have been fully destroyedmostly with US threat reduction fundingand their spent nuclear fuel has been sent to the Mayak Chemical Combine in the Southern Urals for reprocessing. Yet others wait rustingin some cases barely afloatat Russian Navy ports for full destruction.
The precariousness of this situation was underscored last August when the K-159a derelict retried submarine that had been sitting in retirement for years at the Gremikha Naval Base on the Kola Penisulasank while being towed to dismantlement at the Polyarny shipyard. The vessel sank in heavy weather after its tow cable snapped, killing all nine of the 10 crewmen aboard.
Renowned environmentalist and ERC Bellona chairman, Alexander Nikitin, said in a recent interview that we have asked Defence Minister Ivanov to declassify the data about the radiation accidents in strict accordance with Russian legislation.
The Navys answer
Bellonas lawyers said in their letter to Defence Minister Ivanov, which was later answered by the navys Kuroyedov, that information about accidents on Soviet-era submarines cannot be classified under Article 7 of the law On State Secrets. The law directly forbids classification of any information pertaining to civil emergencies and catastrophes that threaten the safety and health of the population; to natural disasters and official forecasts about disasters and their prospective consequences, as well as information about ecological conditions
The classification of such information is also in direct violation of the Russian Constitution, Bellonas lawyers say.
Kuroyedovs curt replyrunning only eight lines of textin which he denied knowledge of open information sources about the accidents aboard the enumerated submarines, admitted to only one calamity, the K-19, which would have been pointless to deny given its slickly produced Hollywood-borne fame. The script of K-19: The Widowmaker was largely hyped and dramatised, according to the K-19 survivors, who were treated to a pre-screening in St. Petersburg in 2002. But they did say that the depiction of the reactor accidenta cooling system failure that nearly led to a nuclear explosionwas accurate.
But even after that information was made public in a box-office blockbuster starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, Kuryedov, in his response, refused to offer any more information about the K-19s accident, writing that this accident is officially known to all concerned parties.
Bellona Lawyers determined that the refusal to grant the information, in and of itself, was illegal and began launching its series of complaints in the Moscow courts.
Sub accidents are not subject to classificationbut old-time politics prevail
We plan to initiate another series of legal suits demanding the declassification of illegally declassification of information because this information is significant to society, said Pavlov.
On November 26th, Bellona published for the first time anywhere a transcript of a 1986 Politburo meeting, presided over by Mikhail Gorbachyov, in which the Communist party upper brass discussed how to deal with the sinking of the K219, a Russian nuclear sub that had gone down in the Sargasso Sea.
We obtained a copy of this document from the American NGO US National Security Archives. They had made a copy of it during the beginning of the 1990s, when Russian archives were open, said Pavlov. Today, the archives are again, inn fact, closed,, despite the fact that such documents cannot be made secret, and are of social significance.
The transcript captures a meandering yet revealing glimpse into how the upper echelons of Soviet power handled nuclear catastrophes that posed an international threat. The approach was not unlike the one that followed the sinking during a training exercise of the Kursk in 2000 that was characterised at first by governmental silence, then overwhelming paranoia about offers of internationalparticularly Americanaide to help raise the stricken vessel, which during the Kremlins deliberations, still had survivors on board.
The Russians, in fact, blamed the United States, who were monitoring the exercise with their own subs, and said an under water collision with an American sub was the cause of the sinking. It was later revealed that two explosions in the Kursks torpedo section had caused the disaster.
By the time international aide was accepted by Russia, and Norwegian divers succeeded in a matter of hours in opening escape hatches that the Russian crews could not open in a week, it was too late.