The criminal case against Aleksandr Nikitin has ever since it started in October 1995 been characterised by gross procedural violations. Its huge importance for the status of the Russian Constitution and the general development of the rule of law in Russia has from time to time made it easy to forget the content of the charges against Nikitin.
The forthcoming hearing of the case in the Presidium of the Russian Supreme Court on September 13, 2000 is, however, a suitable time for a reminder. Nikitin has under Article 275 (treason through espionage) of the Russian Penal Code been charged with collecting and transferring to a foreign organisation alleged “secret” information about accidents on Soviet nuclear submarines. He has also been charged with disclosure of information about the safety systems for nuclear naval reactors of the 3rd generation (Article 283 of the PC).
Bellona has all the time claimed that this information is of environmental importance and thus, can not be subject to secrecy under the prevailing Russian legislation, while the prosecution has claimed that the information is of “no environmental relevance”.
On December 29, 1999 the St. Petersburg City Court agreed with Bellona that the information was not secret according to the law and acquitted Nikitin of all charges. The Supreme Court’s Collegium on Criminal cases confirmed this legal opinion on April 17, 2000. Nevertheless, the Russian Prosecutor General has yet to come to terms with the acquittal, and still insists that the disputed information constitutes state secrets.
However, it is only a few weeks since the environmental importance of the information in the Bellona-report was confirmed by the events of a tragic reality – the accident on the Kursk. The vessel, its crew and its 3rd generation nuclear reactors are now situated on the ocean floor, while the world is worried about the environmental impacts of the tragedy.
In his testimony before the St. Petersburg City Court on December 3, 1999, retired Russian rear admiral Nikolai Mormul, stated that the high number of accidents within the Russian Submarine Fleet was caused by the secrecy surrounding the accidents. “If this information is secret”, he said pointing at the Bellona-report, “we will never learn from the past and then there is real danger. This report should be available at the bridge of every Russian Nuclear Submarine. Then it would save lives.”
Now these words have obtained new actuality. The Kursk tragedy has reminded us of what kind of threats to the environment nuclear submarines represent. Mormul’s words are also a reminder of the fact that the Nikitin case and the Kursk accident are rooted in the same senseless culture of secrecy. The disputed information in the Bellona-report should not be and according to the prevailing Russian legislation it is not secret.
The Prosecutor General’s appeal is an attempt to revise this state of the law. Thus, the appeal is not only an attack of the independence of the Russian Courts, but also a call for increased secrecy concerning the dangers caused by Russian nuclear submarines.
The decision of the Supreme Court Presidium will therefore not only determine the future of Aleksandr Nikitin. It will also give a strong indication of whether Russia will join the community of countries ruled by law or return to its totalitarian past where the Courts were the extended arm of the state security agencies and where there were no openness concerning the matters of the state.