The Pasko case

Publish date: June 24, 2005

Written by: Jon Gauslaa

The case of Grigory Pasko exposes grave weaknesses within the Russian legal system. As the European Court of Human Rights recently has started to examine the case, the first page of its last chapter has finally been opened. Below follows an overview of the case.

Grigory Pasko (b. 1962) worked as an investigative journalist for the newspaper of the Russian Pacific Fleet, “Boyevaya Vakhta” Battle Watch. In his writings he focused primarily on environmental and nuclear safety issues. The Russian Security Police (the FSB – former KGB) arrested Pasko in November 1997, accusing him of treason through espionage.

The basis for the accusation was that he had co-operated with Japanese journalists from the "NHK" TV-network and the newspaper "Asakhi Simbun" on environmental issues. In 1993 he had for instance disclosed the Russian Navy’s dumping of nuclear waste in the Sea of Japan.

The trials of Pasko
The first Pasko-trial started at the Court of the Russian Pacific Fleet in Far East port of Vladivostok in January 1999. The trial was subject to considerable international attention because of its environmental and human rights aspects.

On July 20, 1999 Pasko was acquitted of treason through espionage, as the Court found no evidence substantiating that he had transferred or had the intention to transfer secret information to the Japanese. Yet, he was sentenced to three years for “abuse of his official position”, a crime he had never been charged with. He was however, released under a general amnesty and left the courtroom as a free man.

Both sides appealed the verdict. While Pasko demanded a full acquittal, the prosecution insisted that he was a spy, paying considerable attention to the “fact” that there still is an official state of war between Russia and Japan since the two countries has yet to sign a peace treaty after World War II.

The Russian Military Supreme Court heard the appeal case in November 2000. It cancelled the first verdict, and sent the case back to the Pacific Fleet Court for a re-trial of the treason charges.

After several postponements, the re-trial started on July 11, 2001 in Vladivostok. On December 25, 2001, the Court of the Pacific Fleet acquitted Pasko on almost all counts, but still convicted him to four years of hard labour for treason through espionage.

A closer look at the conviction
Pasko was charged with having transferred or having intended to transfer, the following ten items of allegedly secret information to Japan:

– a video-film of the transport of spent nuclear fuel;
– a draft to an article he wrote on decommissioning of laid up nuclear submarines,
– a report on the decommissioning of submarines;
– a list of submarine accidents;
– a report on the decommissioning of missile fuel;
– a report on the decommissioning of weapons;
– a report on the economical situation in the Fleet;
– an instruction manual for spacecraft-rescuing;
– a sketch of a base for storage of nuclear waste;
– hand-written notes taken at a meeting in the Pacific Fleet staff on September 11, 1997.

He was acquitted on all charges related to the nine first items of information on this list. The Court found no evidence that substantiated that he had transferred or intended to transfer the information to Japan. Besides, most of the information was related to environmental issues and could thus, not be considered as secret according to Russian law.

The Court also acquitted Pasko for having transferred the notes from the staff meeting, but convicted him for having kept the notes at home, with the intention to subsequently transfer them to “Asakhi Simbun”-journalist Tadashi Okano.

A verdict full of flaws
The Pacific Fleet Court’s elaboration of the proofs that supposedly indicates that Pasko’s intention with taking the notes and keeping them at home for several months was to hand them over to Mr. Okano, does not endure a critical light. Moreover, even though the Court acknowledged that the search of Pasko’s flat where the notes were confiscation in November 1997 was illegal, it ignored that such a violation should disqualify the notes as evidence, according to Article 50 (2) of the Russian Constitution.

The Court also violated the Constitution by basing its assumption that the notes contain secret information on secret legislation applied retroactively. Its verdict is also characterised by several other legal and procedural flaws. Pasko’s defence highlighted these flaws in its appeal to the Russian Military Supreme Court, and demanded a full acquittal for Pasko. The prosecution on its side, asked for a more severe sentence, as the four-year verdict was eight years below the minimum sentence for treason.

The Military Supreme Court handled the appeals on June 25, 2002. It made some adjustments in Pasko’s favour, but upheld his four-year sentence.

A public outcry
Both the Pacific Fleet Court’s conviction, and the Military Supreme Court’s approval, created an outcry internationally as well as in Russia. Among the Russians that spoke out in Pasko’s favour were not only human right defenders and environmentalists, but also the chairman of the Russian Federation Council (the upper chamber of the State Duma), Sergei Mironov, and several other parliamentarians.

At the international level, Pasko was supported by NGOs like the International Helsinki Federation, the Committee to Protect Journalist and Reporters Without Borders. Amnesty International adopted him as prisoner of conscience, and held that the conviction seemed to be motivated not by the need of protecting national security, but by “political reprisal for exposing the practice of dumping nuclear waste.”

Moreover, the European Parliament adopted resolutions in Pasko’s favour in January and July 2002, while the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) appointed Rudolf Bindig from Germany as its rapporteur on the case in April 2002. Bindig visited Russia on a fact-finding mission in November 2002, and met several Russian officials to discuss the case. His report was finalised in the summer of 2003. In November the same year PACE adopted a statement where it concludes that the conviction of Pasko carries “the risk of putting Russian courts in a position where they become instruments of intimidation of the free word” and “exposes grave weaknesses with the procedure before Russian military courts.”

Pasko’s release was scheduled for April 25, 2004, but he was surprisingly released on January 23, 2003. One must assume that there is a connection between his premature release and the outcry against the verdict, as well as with the fact that the conviction was the subject of a complaint to the European Court on Human Rights in December 2002.

The Pasko case in the European Court
The Pasko case raises a number issues related to the development of the rule of law in Russia and the protection of human rights. Bellona has therefore in co-operation with the Norwegian law firm, Hjort, brought the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In the original application form and subsequent communications, it is submitted that the case involves violations of the European Convention on Human Rights, which Russia ratified in May 1998, on inter alia the following counts:

– Article 6 § 1 – the charges were not determined within a reasonable time, as there were several unfounded halts in the proceedings;
– Article 6 § 1 – his right to a fair trial was not respected because the principles of equality of arms and adversarial proceedings were violated;
– Article 6 § 2 – the presumption of innocence was violated through public statements by several high-ranking navy officers during the first trial;
– Article 6 § 3b – his right to adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence was violated as the prosecution at the end of the second trial brought in several surprise witnesses;
– Article 6 § 1, taken together with Article 14 – Pasko was, in contrast to what has been the case in several other Russian trials – convicted on the basis of illegally obtained evidence;
– Article 7 – the conviction was based on retroactive use and extensive interpretation of the criminal legislation;
– Article 10 – the criminal case were not initiated in order to protect state security but to hamper Pasko’s journalistic work, and was thus, an illegal interference in his freedom of expression.

In May 2005, the Strasbourg Court notified Pasko that his complaint had been communicated to the Russian authorities, and that the authorities had been asked to submit its view related to all the above-mentioned counts within July 26, 2005. The authorities have since asked for and have been granted a two-months extension of this deadline.

Concluding remarks
The Pasko case sets the searchlight on the violations of fundamental fair trial principles, and also involves important issues related to the development of the freedom of speech and other basic democratic values.

It is for the time being difficult to predict when there will be a final decision at the European Court. As Pasko’s complaint has been communicated to the Russian authorities, there is however reason to believe that the Court will reach a decision on the admissibility of the various counts in the first half of 2006, and that the merits of the complaint will be decided in late 2006 or early 2007.

Meanwhile, both Pasko’s struggle to clear his name, and the struggle to develop democratic structures in Russia continues. Despite the fact that Pasko was denied an international passport until June 2004, he has also taken up his journalistic work focusing on environmental issues. He currently lives in Moscow and writes for and edits Bellona’s Magazine “EcoPravo” [Ecology and Rights] ( In June 2004 he also completed his law studies.