Russian court upholds sentence for scientist convicted of spying

Researcher among several accused of espionage in crackdown by hard-liners

August 18, 2004|By Kim Murphy | Kim Murphy,LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW - In what was widely seen as an attempt to crack down on researchers and academics, the Russian Supreme Court upheld yesterday a 15-year prison term for a nuclear scientist convicted of passing military secrets to foreigners.

The court's ruling ended the respected researcher's domestic appeals and appeared to guarantee that Igor V. Sutyagin, whose case has attracted the attention of scientists and human rights groups worldwide, will be sent to a prison labor camp.

Sutyagin is one of several Russians recently accused of espionage in what critics say is an attempt by hard-liners in the government to assert greater control over academics, writers, environmentalists and journalists.

In June, the Supreme Court reinstated an espionage case against Siberian physicist Valentin Danilov, who had been acquitted six months earlier on charges that he sold secret satellite technology to a company in China.

Danilov insisted it was elementary and well-known information that he provided as part of a joint research project on weather in space, which he contracted to perform as a way of continuing his own research after his government funding dried up.

"This whole thing has resembled very strongly the 1930s and the purges," Danilov said in an interview before his rearrest in June. "This is a well-oiled machine. Stupidity would be too easy a way to explain it."

Lawyers said Sutyagin's trial was unfair, noting that the court switched juries to include citizens with purported connections to the security services, barred much of the cross-examination and issued instructions that made it difficult for jurors to acquit the scientist. During Sutyagin's appeal hearing this week, the lawyers said, judges switched off the sound when he tried to defend himself by video link from jail.

"What happened is proof that the judicial system in the Russian Federation is functionally not working," said Ernst Cherniy of the Public Committee for Protection of Scientists, which submitted letters of protest on Sutyagin's case from scientists in the United States, Canada and Europe, including three Nobel laureates. "This kind of thing cannot happen in a normal judicial system."

Sutyagin, who has been in custody since his arrest in October 1999, was an arms control researcher with the Moscow-based USA-Canada Institute, a think tank.

The 39-year-old father of two teenage daughters had a legal freelance contract with a British consulting firm, Alternative Futures, to provide research materials on Russian weapons systems and other military issues. Prosecutors alleged that the company was a front for the CIA and identified Sutyagin's two contacts at the firm as U.S. intelligence agents.

Sutyagin argued that the information he provided was in the public domain, some of it published in a book on Russia's strategic nuclear forces that is available in English across the world.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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