Old Style 'Soviet Justice'

February 10, 1994

Under the new Russian constitution adopted by referendum on Dec. 12, citizens may not be prosecuted under secret laws and regulations. Yet at this very moment a Russian court adhering to Stalinist ways is conducting a closed trial in which a defendant is accused of violating secret regulations he has never seen. Moreover, the three judges determining his fate have said they have no need to see the regulations either. They imply a willingness to accept the prosecution's word that the regulations exist and they have been violated by the defendant.

It is to the new Russia's credit, however, that despite layers of legal secrecy the case has become a cause celebre. It is covered in the mass media. Supporters of the defendant have appeared before the court building waving placards reading: "Support the Constitution." The news agency, Itar-Tass, has reported that President Boris Yeltsin considers the whole spectacle "anti-constitutional" but so far has avoided intervening lest -- God forbid -- political authorities were seen to be interfering with judicial independence!

This travesty may seem like a bad joke but, alas, it is not. The defendant is a 58-year-old chemist named Vil Mirzayanov, now the most prominent of Russian whistle-blowers, who disclosed in 1992 that Russia had continued to develop a nerve gas five or ten times more deadly than anything in the American arsenal. This, despite avowals years earlier by former President Mikhail Gorbachev that work on chemical warfare had been discontinued.

The Baltimore Sun was very much involved in the case because it was the only foreign newspaper that broke the Mirzayanov case. The scientist had told Sun correspondent Will Englund and two Moscow weeklies about the clandestine research conducted at laboratories with which he had been associated. All the journalists involved have said he disclosed no technical details, but nevertheless Dr. Mirzayanov was charged with violating the state secret code that his judges evidently consider more sacrosanct than the constitution itself.

Dr. Mirzayanov is now in jail for refusing to appear voluntarily in anything but a public trial. And Mr. Englund is awaiting an official summons after asking for an open trial to prevent a repeat of earlier distortions of his statements to authorities.

The Mirzayanov case is an embarrassment to Russia. It reveals the fragility of its brave attempts to develop a democracy with sinews -- a democracy buttressed with a legal system in which defendants are entitled to public trials on charges publicly revealed about statues or regulations that are on the public record. We hope Mr. Yeltsin's belief that this whole business is "anti-constitutional" prevails not only in this case but in any others yet to come.

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