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Russian Accused of Treason Wins Reprieve

October 30, 1998|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — A retired naval officer who has been called Russia's first post-Soviet prisoner of conscience won a reprieve--but not a full victory--in his treason trial Thursday when the judge ruled that prosecutors had failed to compile adequate evidence.

The decision essentially sends investigators back to square one in trying to prove that Alexander Nikitin revealed state secrets when he helped write a report on Russian nuclear pollution.

All the same, the decision is not an acquittal. Officially, Nikitin remains under arrest and is forbidden to leave St. Petersburg, where the trial began Oct. 20.

Nikitin hailed the decision as a major defeat for the Russian government and its Federal Security Service, the main successor to the Soviet-era KGB.

"This is what we were expecting," he said after the court hearing. "It took them three years of investigation to get zero results."

Nikitin, 46, was arrested by Russian security agents in February 1996 after he wrote sections of a report published by a Norwegian environmental group detailing cases of radioactive leakage from the crumbling submarines of Russia's Northern Fleet.

Nikitin, who retired as a submarine inspector before he began working for the Bellona Foundation environmental organization, was charged with espionage, treason and other offenses so secret that he and his lawyers didn't see the charges until the trial was underway. Some charges were based on secret laws passed after his arrest and applied to his case retroactively.

The trial was closely watched by Western human rights and environmental groups, who saw it as a test of whether Russia has left behind its Soviet-era sham trials and persecution of dissidents. Diederick Lohman, director of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, said that as far as he was concerned, Russia had failed the test.

"In any Western country, Nikitin would have been acquitted," Lohman said. In rejecting the indictment, presiding Judge Sergei Golets said it "lacked specifics." In accordance with the Russian criminal code, he sent it back to prosecutors and the security service for further investigation.

Lohman said that the judge correctly followed the law but that in other countries a poorly prepared indictment would have been dismissed altogether.

Prosecutors are now faced with the choice of preparing a new indictment or letting the case drop.

Special correspondent Anna Badkhen in St. Petersburg contributed to this report.

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