Defendant in Case V-213

HAL PIPER

April 10, 1993|By HAL PIPER

Ah, yes, a summons from the Russian judicial system. Fifteen years later, I remember vividly. And so now they're after Will Englund, are they?

Actually, they're not, and they weren't really after me, either. But you never know.

Mr. Englund, The Sun's Moscow correspondent, was summoned this week to the KGB's infamous Lefortovo headquarters for questioning in connection with two articles he wrote about Russian chemical-weapons research. A source for the story, Vil Mirzayanov, not Mr. Englund, was the target of the investigation. Nevertheless, in the not-so-remote past, American journalists were sometimes used as chips in the superpower poker games.

When I had Mr. Englund's job as Moscow correspondent for The Sun, a skinny young fellow appeared at my office door one fine June morning in 1978. He wore a brown suit and green shirt and looked like the old cartoons of country rubes whose clothing came from mail-order catalogs. He handed me a postcard and said: ''Sign here.''

The card commanded me to appear as a defendant in case V-213.

''What's this all about?'' I asked.

''I don't know,'' said the rube. ''Just sign it.''

I didn't sign, but it didn't help -- I still ended up in court. It turned out that the Soviet state television authority was suing me. A story I had written gave a different version of events than that broadcast on television. Soviet TV's reputation had been injured, it was said, by the implication that its report was untrue.

It was a civil suit, so I was never arrested or held in custody. And the trial proceeded at a crumbling, dreary neighborhood district court, not a grim prison like Lefortovo where the corridors echo with the ghostly screams of decades of political persecutions.

It is unnerving to go to court even to fight a traffic ticket. The stakes seem a lot higher when one is enmeshed in the tendrils of a foreign jurisprudence whose roots are shallow. We like to think that Russia has given up using its courts as a political billy club, but has it? Every office and department in the country must have unreconstructed old-thinkers working side by side with radical reformers. Who is really in charge?

One of Will Englund's concerns was that he might be asked to disclose news sources whose identities he had promised to protect. Refusing to answer such questions has been called contempt of court -- and meant time in jail -- even in the United States, which purports to respect press freedom.

Apparently, though, the court was more interested in Mr. Englund's named source, Dr. Mirzayanov, who had already declared himself by publishing his own article in the Moscow press.

Disclosure of state secrets, the government called it. Governments do get touchy when state secrets are disclosed, especially if the state secrets are embarrassing. What Dr. Mirzayanov disclosed was that chemical-weapons research was continuing, notwithstanding official assurances that it wasn't. There may be a bit of an international incident over that, but not one involving an American journalist.

My international incident petered out, too. To no one's surprise, Soviet TV vanquished me in court. My story had challenged the authenticity of a dissident's confession. But the dissident was still in prison, and he was brought into court in chains to testify that of course he had confessed willingly. Later, he won early release as a model prisoner.

The Sun was ordered to print a retraction, but refused. (I had not reported that the dissident didn't confess, only that his followers didn't believe it.)

At this point I expected to be expelled from Moscow, if not declared in contempt of court. It was a summer of Soviet-American tension -- Anatoly Shcharansky was convicted on trumped-up charges of being an American agent -- and both superpower capitals were looking for ways to flex their muscles. Zbigniew Brzezinski, no less, personally advised me to stand firm -- I think in the hope that if I got expelled he could expel some Russians tit-for-tat.

But all the Soviet authorities wanted in my case was to have a piece of paper representing a court's judgment that the dissident really did confess. I was fined 50 rubles (then worth about $75), which I put on my expense account. And I got the satisfaction of knowing that although I may not be the only liar in American journalism, I am the only one who can prove it with a piece of paper from a Soviet court.

Hal Piper is editor of The Sun's Opinion * Commentary page.

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