Russia drops charges against whistle-blower

March 12, 1994|By Deborah Stead | Deborah Stead,Special to The Sun

MOSCOW -- Russian prosecutors dropped their criminal case against whistle-blowing scientist Vil S. Mirzayanov yesterday, apologizing to him for their "groundless charges."

The de facto acquittal of the 58-year-old chemist, whose closed-door trial had drawn protests from human rights activists, came a month after the Moscow court hearing the case halted proceedings and returned the matter to prosecutors for further investigation.

A spokesman for Russia's acting prosecutor general, Aleksei Ilyushenko, said that investigators found no evidence to support charges that Dr. Mirzayanov had broken the law.

In a case that became an embarrassment for Russian authorities, the chemical-weapons scientist was accused of betraying state secrets after he stated in a series of 1992 articles that Russia was quietly developing new nerve gases while publicly promising to ban them.

His public allegations, which omitted any technical information, appeared in The Sun and in two Russian newspapers.

Dr. Mirzayanov, who had been jailed twice during the 18-month-long investigation, was exonerated largely because of public support in Russia and abroad, rather than because of a reliable legal system, advocates here say.

"This was clearly a political, not a juridical, process," said Andrei Mironov, a human rights activist and former dissident who testified at the trial.

"The case shows the absence of a true legal system. We still don't have the rule of law in Russia."

Indeed, on the same day that prosecutors reversed themselves in the Mirzayanov case, Russia's Supreme Court ruled that the recently amnestied leaders of the 1991 attempted coup must continue to stand trial before the Supreme Court's military tribunal.

The ruling reverses last week's decision to halt the proceedings after the State Duma -- the parliament's lower house -- granted amnesty to the dozen men accused of plotting to overthrow then-Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

According to Deputy Prosecutor General Eduard Denisov, under Russian law all trials must be completed if they remain under the jurisdiction of judges. (In the Mirzayanov case, the matter had been handed back to the prosecutors, who were then permitted to make their decision.)

Apparently, the alleged plotters would go free even if they are found guilty. The defendants, who include the former Soviet parliament chairman, prime minister and KGB chief, are to be tried at some later date by a new tribunal of judges in the military court.

A jubilant Dr. Mirzayanov, who received his exonerating document -- and the apology -- at the prosecutor general's office yesterday afternoon, said public support had been the key to his acquittal.

"The colossal efforts of the press and of democratic organizations in Russia and around the world brought this positive outcome," he said.

"Without these people, it never would have happened."

The outcry reached the ears of President Boris N. Yeltsin, who reportedly deemed the case "anti-constitutional." Under Russia's new constitution, adopted Dec. 12, citizens cannot be prosecuted under secret laws. Dr. Mirzayanov was charged under a law whose regulations about state secrets are themselves secret.

Praising the prosecutor's office for its recognition of the constitution, Aleksander Asnis, Dr. Mirzayanov's attorney, said the decision to drop the charges was adopted without any additional investigation.

"This decision could not have happened before," he said. "It was possible because of changes in the political system and the public's consciousness, and because of the interest displayed by the mass media."

Dr. Mirzayanov plans to continue his crusade against chemical weapons -- concentrating now on safe disposal methods. He will also address the Duma later this month to urge Russia's ratification of the 1993 Paris Convention on banning chemical weapons, a treaty he thinks needs further work on verification.

Meanwhile, he will work on a new cause -- prison reform.

Exposed to what he described as horrific conditions in Moscow's Matrosskaya Tishina jail, he has alerted the Red Cross and Amnesty International about the facility's overcrowding and inmates' poor nourishment.

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