Russia's Highest Court Clears Nikitin of Treason

MOSCOW, Russia, September 13, 2000 (ENS) - A former Russian Navy officer who reported on the risk of nuclear contamination from the submarines of Russia's Northern Fleet was completely cleared of treason charges today.

Aleksandr Nikitin was charged with high treason and disclosure of state secrets by the Russian Security Police, FSB, for co-authoring a report for the Norwegian environmental group Bellona about radioactive hazards in the Russian submarines based on the Kola Peninsula and at Severodvinsk.

Nikitin

Aleksandr Nikitin smiles outside the courthouse is Moscow after his acquittal. (Photos by Thomas Nilsen courtesy Bellona Foundation)
Nikitin maintained that all the information he provided was from publicly available documents. Bellona has claimed that "this information is of environmental importance and thus can not be a subject to secrecy under prevailing Russian legislation," while the prosecution has claimed that the information is of "no environmental relevance."

The court's decision today marks the first time in the history of the Russian Security Police, the successor of the KGB, that a person charged with high treason has been fully acquitted.

Nikitin was greatly relieved by the verdict. "Now I can focus on environmental work. The five year ordeal is finally over." he said.

First charged in 1996, Nikitin was fully acquitted in December 1999. The acquittal verdict was upheld by the Russian Supreme Court in April 2000.

But in May, the Prosecutor Generalís Office appealed the acquittal to the Presidium of the Supreme Court.

court

Inside the Moscow courtroom each side made its final statement today.
In a few words today the Supreme Court Presidium dismissed the appeal leaving the prosecutor no further legal avenues to pursue a case against Nikitin.

"The Presidium of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation rejects the appeal of the Prosecutor General in the case against Aleksandr Nikitin," announced Presidium chairman V. Lebedev. The decision is final and cannot be appealed.

The decision comes shortly after the environmental importance of the information in the Bellona report was confirmed by the sinking of a submarine from Russia's Northern Fleet, the Kursk. The submarine, its crew and its two nuclear reactors sank August 14 in the Barents Sea. Worried neighboring countries are monitoring closely for increases in radiation levels.

The court's ruling can be seen as a victory for the independence of the Russian judiciary. In a reversal of the position of the Russian judiciary in the past, Russian Courts are now guided by the law, and not by the needs of the security agencies or by the resident at the Kremlin, said Jon Gauslaa, Bellona's legal adviser, who was present in the courtroom today.

"What we were witnesses to, was not an ordinary court hearing. It was the final tug of war in an almost five year long struggle against the feared Russian secret police and its henchmen at the prosecutorís office," Gauslaa said.

"The fact that the acquittal verdict was upheld by the highest court authority in Russia increases its value greatly," Nikitin's lawyer Yuri Schmidt said. "The judges in Russia have been supported by this verdict. They will act more independently now."

"The victory is final. The clean-up work in the Russian Northern Fleet, which has been severely hampered by this process should now move on at a much faster pace," said Frederic Hauge, president of the Bellona Foundation. "This task seems almost easy, in comparison to fighting down the successor to the KGB."

According to the Bellona report at the core of the Nikitin case, in the period from 1950 to 1970, Russia's Northern Fleet grew from the smallest to the largest and most important of the four Soviet fleets. Six new naval bases some with nuclear submarine facilities were built on the Kola Peninsula from Zapadnaya Litsa in the west to Gremikha in the east. At the same time, five large naval yards were built on the Kola Peninsula and in Severodvinsk for the construction and maintenance of nuclear submarines.

reporters

Emerging from the courtroom, Nikitin is mobbed by reporters.
During the Cold War more than 240 nuclear submarines were put to operation within the Soviet Union. Today the Northern Fleet operates 67 nuclear submarines.

"Accidents within the reactors on board these submarines, or on some of the nuclear waste storage facilities located in the same fjord, may lead to radioactive contamination reaching the populations of both the Kola Peninsula and Northern Norway. Civilian Russian authorities are still [1995] not allowed entrance to these military bases to inspect the nuclear safety," stated the Bellona report.

Nikitin was particularly responsible for writing Chapter 8 of the report which addresses nuclear submarine accidents. He detailed incidents where nuclear submarines have sunk or where a partial or complete meltdown of the reactor has occurred with the subsequent release of radioactive material.

"The real challenge of today is to ensure secure demolishing and storage of all the submarines that have been and will be taken out of operation. The balance of these are today rusting in at the Naval bases along the Kola coast and in Severodvinsk," Bellona says in its report.

The complete Bellona report co-authored by Thomas Nilsen, Igor Kudrik and Alexandr Nikitin is available online at: http://www.bellona.no/imaker?id=10090&sub=1