Socio-ecological Union
Projects and campaigns

Pasko: Committed to Telling the Toxic Truth

The St.Petersburg Times #711, Tuesday, October 9, 2001

Four years ago, Russian Navy Captain Grigory Pasko - then a military journalist - was jailed on charges of high treason for allegedly selling state secrets to Japan, primarily concerning Russia's disposal of nuclear waste. Pasko, who was a stringer for Japanese news station NHK, had filmed the dumping of liquid radioactive waste in the Sea of Japan and documented other environmental hazards created by the Pacific Fleet. The charges against Pasko remained secret, but those leaked to the press by Pasko's supporters bordered on the ludicrous. He was accused, for example, of illegally covering a meeting at which top brass planned a military training exercise - despite the fact that he had been specifically invited to cover the meeting for Boyevaya Vakhta, the Pacific Fleet newspaper. Amnesty International adopted Pasko as a prisoner of conscience, and a flood of letters arrived defending him as a second Alexander Nikitin, another former navy captain who was tried repeatedly for revealing environmental abuses by the Northern Fleet. Last year after 20 months in jail, Pasko was acquitted of treason charges and convicted on a minor charge of unmilitary conduct. He was sentenced to time served and released. Both the Federal Security Service, or FSB, and Pasko sought to overturn the decision. The FSB wanted Pasko behind bars. Pasko wanted to clear his name. Pasko spoke with The St. Petersburg Times' Russell Working in Vladivostok about the case against him, his fight for vindication and the environmental problems facing Russia's Far East.

Q:Where does your case currently stand, and what verdict do you expect?

A: I suspect the appeal is two-thirds done. On Sept. 28, the court declared a one-month recess. On Nov. 29, the court will announce the results of its review of all the documents. Then both sides will present arguments. And finally, the court will announce a verdict.

Nov. 20 will mark four years since this whole thing started. Under the law, the court has no grounds for conviction. Our opponents are grasping at all sorts of charges. They're even trying to charge me under Article 283:divulging state secrets. It's nonsense. No crime has been committed. They leak information to the press, trying to convince the public that Pasko is a criminal. They failed to prove that I was a spy, so now they think any charge will do. Pasko must be convicted. But we think the verdict will be "not guilty." If not, we'll appeal to the international court in Strasbourg.

Q: It is said that since you no longer work for the Pacific Fleet, no one covers its environmental problems anymore. What dangers are people not hearing about?

A: I can't answer this concretely, because I have been out of the loop for four years. But judging from what Pacific Fleet officers tell me, and also from what I have learned during my closed military trial - it was declared a "secret" proceeding only to prevent the public from learning about the lawlessness of the FSB and military officials in contaminated areas - the biggest radiation threats in Primorye are the decommissioned nuclear submarines and nuclear-waste storage sites. In the Far East, nuclear submarines are located in two places: Krasheninnikova Bay in Kamchatka and near Sysoyeva Bay in Primorye. In these two spots there is potential for a disaster of enormous proportions.

But the environmentalists say we suffer most from the garbage dump at Gornostai Bay, and from the huge number of cars that poison the air. And they are right. The local government can't even cope with a relatively small problem like a garbage dump within Vladivostok city limits on the shore of Peter the Great Bay. How do you expect them to deal with decommissioned submarines?

Q: Have the authorities done anything right?

A: Yes, some things have been done. In Bol shoi Kamen, they built a floating plant to purify radioactive waste. The construction order was issued in 1992, but the plant only came online this year. Thanks to American aid, they have the capacity to store nuclear fuel at Sysoyeva Bay and to store ballistic missiles from the submarines before they are processed.

I suspect that the countries that might help solve these problems don't appreciate the truly horrific situation in our dangerous radioactive zones. And they don't know because Russia, following Soviet practice, classifies all information on nuclear-waste storage.

Last year, all the decommissioned submarines and storage facilities were handed over to the Atomic Energy Ministry. Now the Pacific Fleet bears no responsibility for them. The ministry created a government-owned company, Dalrao, to handle the subs and storage facilities. And they appointed a former military man, Rear Admiral [Nikolai] Lysenko, to run it. Lysenko has demonstrated a crude adherence to the government line. When he was asked in court what he knew about Article 7 of the Official Secrets Act [which stipulates that information about environmental dangers cannot be classified], he replied: "I don't need to know anything about that. The Defense Ministry issued a contrary decree, No. 075." Until someone charges officials like Lysenko with criminal concealment of information affecting public health, he and his ilk will never have any cause to shake up their petrified military mindset.

Q: Did you ever knowingly photocopy secret documents, as rumor has it?

A: I never broke the law. First of all, military journalists are so restricted in their work that they can't do anything without someone else's participation. It would be impossible to get hold of secret documents containing evidence of Soviet dumping of thousands of barrels of [the poisonous chemicals] lewisite and yperite without anyone's knowledge. I knew, however, that such documents existed, and that they contained the exact amounts dumped and geographic coordinates for the dumping sites. But I had no access to them.

Knowing that these documents existed, I exhausted every legal avenue demanding that they be declassified. And when I published articles about the environment I was protected by Article 7 of the Official Secrets Act. Many officers understood this and provided me with information. Strangely, after the articles came out, portions of this information were suddenly classified. Under Russian law, the FSB had no right to do this. They did so in order to build a criminal case against me.

Q: There was talk in navy circles that some of your sources were later punished for providing you with classified information.

A: That's nonsense. Fifty-three witnesses have been interrogated. None of my regular sources ever gave me classified documents. And none of them has been punished.

Q: If your cause hadn't been taken up by human-rights groups and the international press, is it possible that the judge in your first trial would have ruled to keep you in jail instead of releasing you?

A: Had I been a Japanese spy, probably yes. The court received 24,000 letters from all over the world - from Australia, America, all over Europe. If 48,000 letters had been delivered, but I had been guilty, they wouldn't have helped. Faced with my clear innocence and 24,000 letters, the court still found me guilty of a bizarre charge that doesn't apply to my case.

When I talk to journalists from other countries, I always thank the people and organizations for their concern. For some reason, the biggest number of letters to the court and various government agencies came from Holland. So I thank all the countries that supported me - we counted 98 of them - and to the Dutch I bear a special debt of gratitude.

Back to Pasko page