Sierra Club questions Russia’s qualifications for G-8 participation

Publish date: June 21, 1997

Press release from the Sierra Club, USA

Group Considers Persecution of Environmentalist Litmus Test

DENVER – The Sierra Club today questioned the readiness of Russia to participate in this week’s G-7 Summit because of the country’s persecution of environmentalists and lack of commitment to environmental protection. The group cited the case of Alexander Nikitin, a former Soviet submarine captain who was jailed for helping to expose illegal nuclear waste dumping.

"If Boris Yeltsin wants to join this exclusive club of world leaders, he’s got to show that he’s earned the invitation. Clearly, persecuting environmental whistle blowers sends the wrong signal," said Stephen Mills, the Sierra Club’s Human Rights and the Environment Campaign Director.

Nikitin, an employee of the Norway-based environmental group The Bellona Foundation, and a former nuclear engineer in the Russian navy, committed the "crime" of working with Bellona to produce a bleak report entitled, "The Russian Northern Fleet: Sources of Radioactive Contamination." Released in November of 1995, it describes the problems that the Russian fleet is experiencing with its nuclear powered vessels and with the storage of spent nuclear fuel and other radioactive waste that the operation of these vessels generates. This important report has been banned – the first book to be illegal in post-Soviet Russia.

"We urge the G-7 to condition Russia’s full participation on the demonstration by Russia that it is operating under the rule of law and that it is not persecuting its citizens for engaging in constitutionally protected activities. We urge PresidentYeltsin to reign in the security organizations who are inhibiting environmental advocacy aimed at protecting both Russia and the rest of the world from nuclear hazards," Mills said. "Lawmakers are already raising questions about the sustainability of important environmental projects like the cleanup of Arctic nuclear waste, because of interference with these projects by Russia’s Federal Security Service." The FSB is the Russian acronym for the recast KGB.

"This case has even larger implications than serious environmental threats to human health and the world’s oceans and fisheries than were exposed in the report Nikitin helped The Bellona Foundation to write," said Mills. "This case is a litmus test for the future of political freedom in the new Russia. This is a fight of the new guard versus the old guard, and the winner will control the future of Russia."

The Russian Federal Law on State Secrets, adopted in 1993, contains provisions stating that no information on the conditions of the environment or on extraordinary incidents and catastrophes that endanger human life and health may be classified as state secrets. The Russian constitution clearly states that no one can be charged for violations of legal acts that have not been made known to the accused.

"The Federal Security Service has chosen to ignore this," Mills said, "charging that Nikitin has violated secret laws – which have yet to be revealed to Nikitin or his lawyer." This week, after an investigation that lasted more than a year, the FSB announced it would recommend that official charges be filed against Nikitin, and that they had discovered yet another secret law which Nikitin has supposedly violated.

"Although Alexander Nikitin welcomes the opportunity to clear his name in court, any charges filed against him must be based on known and public laws upon which he can defend himself," said Mills. "The Russians should know that the world will be watching how they handle this embarrassing case."

According to Amnesty International, the FSB appears to be more concerned about obtaining Alexander Nikitin’s conviction than in establishing the truth through fair judicial determination. An Amnesty report also concludes that the chapter on Soviet nuclear submarine accidents in Bellona’s "The Russian Northern Fleet," co-written by Nikitin, "does not contain information, the publication of which would constitute a threat to Russian national security interests and thus cannot justify a restriction of freedom of expression on the grounds of protecting national security interests." The U.S. State Department concurred this past January when it released its country report on human rights. "Nikitin and Bellona," the State Department said, "have demonstrated that all of the information they published was from open sources."

"The Sierra Club has long held that citizen participation in government decision-making is the key to environmental protection," said Mills. "In order for people worldwide to take action to protect their environment, their rights concerning political participation, the freedom to speak and organize – must be recognized and respected by their governments. Environmental activists must also be free from the threat of retaliation."


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