3 scientists arrested over nerve gas reports Russian police release 2, hold 1

October 23, 1992|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- Three scientists who discussed top-secret chemical weapons research with a reporter from The Sun were arrested yesterday by Russian security police during simultaneous raids on their apartments in different regions of Moscow.

Two were released after a full day of questioning. One of the men will be charged with divulging state secrets, Russian television said.

Papers and passports were seized from the three men during searches of their homes that lasted from two to four hours.

Dr. Vil Mirzayanov, who worked until a year ago at the State Union Scientific Research Institute for Organic Chemistry and Technology, where top-secret work on new poison gases is carried out, remained at the Lefortovo Prison.

Last month, he and Lev Fyodorov, a chemist active in the fledgling environmental movement here, revealed in an interview with The Sun and later in Moskovskiye Novosti that research at the lab had continued at least through January. At the same time, as far back as 1987, the Soviet government was claiming that all chemical weapons production had been halted.

The authorities focused yesterday on the article in Moskovskiye Novosti. A statement released by the Russian Security Ministry said that the article "disclosed information about the situation with developments in the field of chemical technology, which constitute a state secret." The ministry is the successor to the Soviet KGB.

In a broader article, last Sunday, The Sun reported that such research, aimed at developing more effective binary nerve gases, was still going on under a program code-named Foliant. The article described the work of the lab over the years, the high level of importance and privilege accorded its scientists under the Soviet system and the feeling of scientists there now that the work should cease.

Dr. Fyodorov was one of those detained and then released yesterday. In an interview last night, he said: "I understood this event would come. They're just trying to defend themselves."

He said he believes the whole incident was an attempt at intimidation. It was clear from the questions he was asked while in detention, he said, that he had been followed at least since Monday, a day after the most recent article about the lab appeared in The Sun.

Also questioned by police and released yesterday was Eduard Sarkisian, a toxicologist still working at the lab who was quoted in Sunday's article in The Sun but not in the earlier article.

All three were taken to the Security Ministry's Lefortovo Prison. Three reporters who entered the prison's reception area during the day were told to leave at once. The raids on the scientists' homes began about 7:30 a.m. yesterday. Seven agents appeared at each apartment, demanding entry. Dr. Fyodorov and Dr. Mirzayanov's wife thought at first that they were burglars.

When Dr. Mirzayanov realized the men were in fact security agents, he telephoned journalists and a human rights activist because he said he wanted witnesses. But then the police threatened to break his door down, and he let them in.

They offered no explanation as to what they were doing, according to Nuriya Mirzayanova, the chemist's wife, and no crime was alleged on their warrant. But the agents, led by Major N. A. Odnovolik, sent Dr. Mirzayanov away in one car and then began a search of the apartment -- even though the warrant, in accord with Russian law, guaranteed Dr. Mirzayanov the right to be present during such a search.

The agents told Mrs. Mirzayanova that her husband was the likely target of a criminal case, and mentioned the Moskovskiye Novosti article he had written.

After searching the two-room apartment, which the Mirzayanovs share with their two children, the agents seized Dr. Mirzayanov's passport and several of his documents (including copies of The Sun's article of Sept. 16).

"They told me to shut up and wouldn't let me use the phone," Mrs. Mirzayanova said afterward. "I told them, 'Why should I shut up? I'm in my house, not yours.' "

Last night an investigator called Mrs. Mirzayanova and told her that no charges had been brought so far against her husband, but that he was being kept in detention. The investigator told her to bring a toothbrush and other personal effects to Lefortovo Prison this morning.

Moscow Television reported last night that one of the authors of the Moskovskiye Novosti article -- clearly referring to Dr. Mirzayanov -- had been charged with divulging a state secret, a crime punishable by two to five years in prison.

The Itar-Tass news agency reported that "proofs" of his guilt had been found during the search of his apartment. Russian Television, which speaks authoritatively for the government, reported that the case involves "industrial espionage," although the articles in question concern only weapons research.

The agents who came for Dr. Fyodorov asked him what his relations were with Moskovskiye Novosti and with The Sun, he said later. During his interrogation at Lefortovo, he was asked several times about his connections with The Sun, and was asked to describe his knowledge of new chemical weapons.

Dr. Fyodorov and Dr. Sarkisian said they had been told they were being detained as potential witnesses in a criminal case.

Gen. Anatoly Kuntsevich, former vice commander of Soviet chemical forces and now an aide to President Boris N. Yeltsin on chemical and biological disarmament, has denied that Russia possesses any "new weapons systems," and termed the articles about weapons development "slanders."

Dr. Fyodorov said he asked his interrogator at one point yesterday, "If it's all a lie, as Kuntsevich says, then why am I here?"

He received no answer.

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