Supreme Court leaves Russian legal system in limbo

Publish date: March 28, 2000

Written by: Thomas Nilsen

The Supreme Court Judge granted the request of the prosecution to postpone hearing of the Nikitin case for indefinite time 15 minutes after the opening. The Russian legal system remains in limbo regardless the promises of the newly elected President to rule the country by law.

The court was in session at 10:00 sharp Moscow time. Three judges were facing a big crowd of reporters and international observers packed in a small room no. 5 in the Supreme Court building near the Red Square. Present were Aleksandr Nikitin and his three lawyers from St. Petersburg. From the prosecution side there were a representative from the Prosecutor General Office and the prosecutor in the case from St. Petersburg, Aleksandr Gutsan.

The Presiding Judge named those present and asked if there were any comments from any of the sides before the proceedings start. The representative of the General Prosecutor Office stood up and asked the court to postpone the proceedings for two-three more weeks. The reason given was the fact that the Prosecutor General Office wants to take part in the proceedings on equal terms with the defence but did not have time to ‘familiarise’ itself with the verdict reached in the Nikitin case by the City Court in St. Petersburg. Nikitin’s defence team tried to protest but was interrupted by the Judge. The prosecutor’s request was granted.


Aleksandr Nikitin, charged with high treason by the Russian Security Police (FSB), was acquitted of all charges in the St. Petersburg City Court on December 29, 1999. The prosecution lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation the next day asking for case re-evaluation by another judge. The appeal was to be handled by the Supreme Court today.

Russian legal system remains in limbo

The Supreme Court received the case files for evaluation on February 24. The Prosecutor General Office got access to them four days later having a month at its disposal to look into the merits of the sentence of acquittal. The Nikitin case is not something the Prosecutor General Office has never encountered before. During the past five years, the case files were sent there for verification several times. A number of resolutions regarding the case has been made at the level of both the Prosecutor General himself and his first deputies. Thus, the excuse to postpone the court session with a reference to the fact that it was not enough time to go through the verdict sounds little plausible.


“It was a great deal of disappointment today,” Frederic Hauge, President of the Bellona Foundation, said after the court was over. “Russian officials confronted by the West have always stressed that the court is to decide upon the fate of Aleksandr Nikitin, this is exactly what the Russian court system fails to do.”

Bellona’s legal advisor, Jon Gauslaa, said that the failure of the court to take a final stance in this case leaves the Russian legal system in limbo. “The appeal lodged by the prosecution questioning the sentence of acquittal was completely groundless,” Gauslaa said. “The Supreme Court had an easy task – to follow the Constitution and reject the appeal reaffirming the acquittal of Nikitin.”

Aleksandr Nikitin sounded exhausted today. The nightmare that has been harassing him for the past five years seems to be never ending. He could not explain what were the motives behind the prosecution’s decision to take a few weeks break. “They want apparently to look around and decide where the wind is blowing,” suggested Nikitin talking about the end of the rush in the presidential elections. “For the bureaucrats the rush time is just beginning. None of them knows whether they will hold their positions. They have to figure out the intentions of the new President and then act accordingly,” Nikitin added.

Even though the Prosecutor General Office asked for a two-three week break, it might take longer time before the case is in the court again. Both Nikitin and his defence team are hoping for the best, but unpleasant surprises have been haunting this case from the very beginning leaving no place for confidence in the final outcome.

Nikitin was charged with high treason and disclosure of state secrets for his work as co-author of the Bellona Report The Russian Northern Fleet. He was arrested by the Russian Security Police (FSB) on February 1996 and spent 10 months in custody. Following his release, Nikitin was under city arrest in St. Petersburg. The St. Petersburg City Court, that acquitted Nikitin in December 1999, abolished the city arrest, but he is still denied travelling abroad.