Albion Monitor /News
[Editor's note: For additional background on the Nikitin case and Russia's rusting stockpile of nuclear materials, see our last report on the case last March.]

Russian Enviro Whistleblower Free -- For Now

by Andrei Ivanov and Judith Perera

Major victory for enviro group seeking to expose nuclear cleanup

(IPS) MOSCOW -- Retired naval captain Aleksandr Nikitin was released from a St. Petersburg prison on December 14, after 10 months in solitary confinement on suspicion of treason and espionage for his part in a report by an environmental organization Bellona on radioactive contamination.

Thomas Nilsen of the Norwegian environmental organization Bellona said on December 17 that the charges brought against Nikitin by the Federal Security Service (FSB) have not been dropped, and he requires FSB permission to leave St. Petersburg.

But whether or not he makes the press conference, Bellona now expects that the case will not come to trial. "His release is a real smack in the face for the FSB," says Nilsen. "It is the first time ever that the Russian security services have lost a case that was so important for their prestige."

Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience, the first in Russia since the collapse of the USSR

Previous efforts to obtain Nikitin's release on bail failed in face of the determination of the FSB -- formerly the feared Soviet KGB -- to get a conviction. The FSB had also enjoyed the full support of the St. Petersburg Procurator's Office.

However once the investigation into the case ended and the charges were formally brought several weeks ago, the case was handed over to the courts.

"This was a major factor in securing his release," Nilsen explains. "The FSB knew this, and that is why they prolonged the investigation for so long." Nikitin's lawyer, Yuri Schmidt, took the case to the Moscow Procurator General's office once the charges were laid.

"It took the General Procurator just 40 minutes to decide that the case had nothing to do with espionage," says Nilsen. The case has now been referred back to the FSB in St. Petersburg for further investigation because of a lack of evidence.

Nikitin is now relaxing at home with his family after 10 months in isolation. He is suffering from acute exhaustion and his eyesight has also been impaired after being cooped up in a small cell without natural light, according to his wife Tatyana Chernova.

However he has been in touch with Bellona and says he is looking forward to resuming his work to contain radioactive pollution on the Kola peninsula.

Schmidt says an additional investigation into the Nikitin case will be carried out by independent experts. "I am convinced that this affair will be halted without a trial, not right now but a little later," he says.

However there is concern that the FSB will try to find a pretext for keeping him in detention rather than admitting to making a mistake. During the investigation Nikitin was repeatedly denied bail, although no charges were brought against him. Amnesty International declared him a prisoner of conscience, the first in Russia since the collapse of the USSR.

Nikitin, aged 44, who lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and two teenage daughters, is a retired naval captain. Originally from Ukraine, he graduated from the Naval High School for engineers in Sevastopol in 1974.

Until 1985 he was based at Zapadnaya Litsa with the Northern Fleet before being transferred to Moscow, where he worked until 1992 in the Defense Ministry's control agency for nuclear safety.

Since then he has been working as a car dealer in St. Petersburg after failing to find civilian work in the nuclear safety field. He has been doing occasional contract work with Bellona since 1994.

The treason charges were brought under Article 64 of the criminal code (disclosing state secrets) and Article 75 (using a false document). The FSB accused Nikitin of collecting classified information and passing it to Bellona.

Nikitin did not hand in his officer's pass after he retired in 1992 and had used it to visit one of St. Petersburg's military units, where he examined documents classified as secret and top secret.

The FSB said Nikitin copied excerpts from the documents and used them in the report he co-authored with Thomas Nilsen and Igor Kudrik of Bellona, "The Northern Fleet: Sources of Radiocontamination." It concluded that thousands of spent nuclear fuel assemblies and tons of other radioactive waste from the Russian Northern Fleet posed more danger than the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.

Growing international support for Nikitin was undoubtedly an important factor

Schmidt said the FSB acted in violation of the Russian Constitution because the charges were based on a secret, unpublished Ministry of Defense decree of 1993 which neither he nor Nikitin had access to.

The Constitution states that no one can be charged under legal acts which have not been published. Moreover, the Russian Supreme Court had earlier ruled that Nikitin should be regarded as a civilian.

Before Nikitin's arrest the FSB began an investigation accusing Bellona of disclosing state secrets. The Murmansk office of the organization was raided and all their computers, communications equipment and written materials were confiscated.

Bellona had enjoyed the support of Russian Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev before Kozyrev's own dismissal last year. The group, which acts as an unofficial adviser to the Norwegian foreign ministry on nuclear contamination in the Arctic, also has widespread European support.

Growing international support for Nikitin was undoubtedly an important factor in his release. Bellona is now celebrating their victory. But, says Nilsen, "The battle is not over yet. This is only the beginning. Now it is very important to keep up the pressure on the Russian authorities. The FSB will not give up easily."

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Albion Monitor December 28, 1996 (

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