Interrogation at Lefortovo

April 10, 1993

Moscow's Lefortovo is a forbidding-looking brick fortress prison built in the shape of a K -- a bizarre tribute to Katherine the Great by the architect, who was infatuated with the empress.

Over the centuries, thousands have passed through Lefortovo's TC dark corridors. To some it was the starting point on a long journey through czarist penal colonies and, later, through Stalin's Gulag. Others languished in its tepid cells until they received the executioner's call. The lucky ones -- who were relatively few -- eventually were let go.

Will Englund, a Moscow correspondent for The Baltimore Sun, has been making repeated trips to Lefortovo in recent days at the demand of the Russian Security Ministry, which is building a case against one of his sources.

In a September 1992 article, Mr. Englund quoted a Russian chemical scientist, Vil Mirzayanov, as saying that at a time when the Kremlin was publicly supporting treaties eliminating chemical weapons, his country had secretly developed a nerve gas 10 times more deadly than a similar U.S. chemical agent. The article -- and a similar one based on Dr. Mirzayanov's allegations in a Moscow newspaper -- greatly embarrassed the authorities, who arrested the whistle blower and charged him with revealing state secrets.

This case has now seemingly become entangled with the unresolved internal power struggle in Russia. How else are we to interpret a wisecrack by Mr. Englund's interrogator that the reason he had not bothered to take down a Communist hammer-and-sickle seal from his office wall was because he might just have to put it back up again? By going so doggedly after an American reporter in a case where published facts speak for themselves, some elements in the former KGB clearly are trying to send a message to Moscow's foreign press corps as well as to the domestic news media.

Few governments like the disclosure of information they want suppressed. Even in this country, courts sometimes try to force journalists to disclose their sources -- this, despite democratic and constitutional protections for a free press.

The interrogation at Lefortovo underscores how fragile Russia's freedoms still are. Yet, ironically, it gives the Russian government an opportunity to send its own bureaucrats and enforcers a new kind of message -- one that blows the whistle on ham-handed attempts to intimidate reporters.

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