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Judge Paroles Russian Journalist

Environmental whistle-blower and military reporter vows to clear his name of treason.

January 24, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — A Russian journalist and environmental whistle-blower whose conviction sparked international protests was paroled Thursday after serving more than two-thirds of a four-year term.

A military court had convicted Grigory Pasko of treason for attending a 1997 meeting of Russian naval commanders and taking notes, which the court ruled he had intended to pass to Japanese reporters. Pasko's backers say he was punished in reprisal for his reporting on environmental abuses by the Russian navy, including the dumping of radioactive waste into the sea.

Pasko's imprisonment had been seen as part of a tightening of pressure against independent reporting in recent years. His release "is the first good news about press freedom to have come from Russia in a long time," Robert Menard, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based watchdog group, said in a statement.

Speaking by telephone from his home in Vladivostok, Pasko said his phone had been ringing all day. "The people who call me are jolly and full of optimism, but to be honest, I personally am not that optimistic," he said.

"Fundamentally, Russia has not changed at all, still no one cares about anything here, and the authorities are free to do anything they want," he said. "What happened to me over the past six years means that there is no freedom of speech in Russia today, just as there was no freedom of speech when I was arrested."

However, Pasko added, he is grateful to the judge who ordered him released, and happy to be home with his sons, Ruslan, 19, and Pavel, 4. His wife, Galina Morozova, was in Berlin meeting with lawmakers and human rights activists. But they had already spoken three times by phone, he said.

"It is as if I have come back from a long business trip," he said. "This is, by the way, what my younger son, Pavel, said when he saw me: 'Daddy is finally back from a business trip.' He did not see me for most of his life.... It feels inexplicably great when your son puts his little palm in your hand or rides on your shoulders."

Morozova told Russian TVS television that her husband's release "is only a small, small victory, a small part of the fight that we're waging. This victory does not mean his rehabilitation, his acquittal. The main work is still ahead of us."

In his first trial, Pasko, a military journalist, was acquitted of treason but convicted on lesser charges. He was imprisoned for 20 months in connection with that trial, which ended in 1999. Both he and prosecutors appealed, and in a 2001 retrial he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to four years with credit for time served.

Pasko, who has maintained his innocence and demanded a complete acquittal, refused to appeal for a pardon even after President Vladimir V. Putin said he would consider granting such a request.

"We are going to work to achieve the full exoneration of my good name," Pasko told reporters when he left the prison in Ussuriysk. "We're going to do everything to ensure that this criminal case is recognized as a falsification.... We won in almost all civilian courts. However, as soon as the case falls into the hands of the military justice system, we are witness to a mockery of the law and common sense."

Pasko is trying to appeal his conviction to the Russian Supreme Court; the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, has already taken up his case.

"It is great that Grigory Pasko has been allowed to leave prison, but this joy is far from being absolute and complete," said Yekaterina Lysova, a media lawyer at the Press Development Institute in Moscow, an organization supporting independent media in Russia. "It has been overshadowed by the fact that Pasko has been released on parole and not acquitted, as he deserves."

Pasko's case "sends a very powerful and rather unambiguous signal to all journalists throughout Russia: Sit tight and do not stick your neck out," Lysova said.

"For everybody else, the Pasko case is a clear sign that Russia is still a long way away from having true freedom of speech."

Amnesty International issued a statement in Washington welcoming Pasko's release and declaring it believes his prosecution was an act of political reprisal for his reporting.

"In 1993, Grigory Pasko filmed a Russian navy tanker dumping radioactive waste and ammunition in the Sea of Japan," the rights group said.

"In this film and in a series of articles, he exposed the threat to the environment caused by ships of Russia's decaying Pacific Fleet, including nuclear submarines. He also reported on corruption inside the fleet and passed on public information on these issues to Japanese journalists."

William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, described Pasko's ordeal as "a throwback to the repression of the Soviet era."

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Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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