Russia whistle-blower is denied public trial Ex-naval officer drew world's attention to military nuclear waste

October 21, 1998|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Aleksandr K. Nikitin climbed a cracked, dark city court stairway to answer charges of espionage yesterday, but his defenders argue that Russia itself is on trial here as a resurgent and unchecked secret police culture tries to impose silence and fear on its citizens.

Nikitin, a 46-year-old retired Russian Navy captain, was arrested for helping a Norwegian environmental group research and write a report about nuclear dangers around Murmansk, the Russian nuclear fleet's headquarters.

The area above the Arctic Circle may have the world's highest concentration of nuclear materials stored under deteriorating conditions.

"In this case we clearly see elements of criminal investigation reminiscent of what the KGB used against its opponents," said Diederik Lohman, the Human Rights Watch's Moscow representative, referring to the old Soviet secret police. "Even if Aleksandr Nikitin is acquitted, we are looking at major damage to environmental research and to an increased likelihood of nuclear disasters."

The first hour of Nikitin's trial was open yesterday, then the proceedings were closed to the public.

Observers who were slow to leave were shoved out by more than a dozen camouflage-clad police, who acted as if they were breaking up a group of street rowdies rather than clearing an orderly courtroom.

"Why are you pushing me?" asked a middle-aged woman from a soldiers' mothers group. "I could be your mother."

Lawyers and human rights activists say the case has already frightened Russians who are concerned about the environment and has seriously delayed solutions to complicated, costly and dangerous problems.

"There are 274 nuclear reactors in the north of Russia and 11 different dump sites for spent nuclear fuel," said Frederic Hauge, managing director of Bellona, the Norwegian environmental group.

"One area, Andreyeva Bay, has 24,000 spent nuclear fuel assemblies stored in very bad conditions. You'd have to explode 5,000 nuclear bombs to create the same radioactivity. This is what this case is about."

If such issues cannot be discussed openly, he said, the prospects are poor for resolving them.

"This case has had a chilling effect on this work. A lot of people in the region now are afraid to work with these issues," he said.

Nikitin said he became involved with Bellona because he knew impoverished Russia could never improve storage and handling of nuclear fuel and equipment without international help.

"We weren't trying to create a scandal," he said. "We were trying to resolve it quietly."

During the open session, Judge Sergei Golets described basic courtroom procedures and informed Nikitin of his rights in answering the charges. His lawyers argue that many of his rights have already been violated beyond remedy.

Nikitin has been charged with violating secret government decrees, which prosecutors refused to specify and which may have gone into effect after Nikitin was charged. The judge, who ordered the Defense Ministry to show him the secret decrees, agreed yesterday to allow the defense to read them.

Golets has the assistance of two judicial consultants to advise the judge on his verdict.

Nikitin's lawyers say that because only individuals with security clearance from the FSB -- the domestic successor to the KGB -- can serve as consultants when secret decrees are at issue, the consultants may well be under FSB control. Though the consultants' names were announced yesterday, defense lawyers could get no information about their background or expertise.

"Permission to listen to state secrets can only be granted by the FSB," the judge said when Nikitin objected to the assessors.

Nikitin, who retired from the Navy in 1992, started working in 1995 for the Bellona Foundation, which was established in 1989 as Norwegians began to fear another nuclear disaster on the scale of Chernobyl in neighboring Russia.

Scandinavian scientists were the first to report the 1986 Ukrainian accident after they observed that radioactive particles were blowing their way. They also worried about Russia's Northern Fleet after the nuclear submarine Komsomolets caught fire and sank in 1989.

"I had been interested in nuclear questions for a long time," Nikitin said in an interview, "and Bellona's work coincided with my convictions."

Though Nikitin and his Bellona associates assert that they gathered their information from public sources, the FSB charged Nikitin with treason by espionage and disclosing state secrets. The FSB says that Bellona recruited Nikitin with the help of Robert Bathurst, identified as a member of the Norwegian World Problems Institute who earlier worked for U.S. intelligence.

Some of Nikitin's defenders say that the FSB apparently was outraged because he had served on nuclear submarines and had been assigned as leader of one of the teams inspecting nuclear safety in the Northern Fleet.

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