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Mr. Putin's Latest 'Spy'

The Washington Post, December 27, 2001

THE EVIDENCE is growing that Vladimir Putin sees no connection between the new partnership he says he is seeking between Russia and the West and his own domestic policies, which frequently violate Western norms of democracy and human rights. Mr. Putin continues to repress independent media that report critically on his government, and he appears determined to continue his military's brutal campaign against rebels in Chechnya, following a feint at negotiations. Perhaps most tellingly, the security agency that Mr. Putin used to head, the Federal Security Service -- successor to the Soviet KGB -- continues to press on implacably with a series of bogus espionage cases against independent journalists and academics, despite mounting criticism from Russian and international human rights groups. On Tuesday, after a secret trial before a military court, one of the most flagrant of those cases concluded with a four-year prison sentence for Grigory Pasko, a journalist who exposed the improper dumping of radioactive waste by the Russian Navy.

Mr. Pasko's case attracted particular attention in part because of his determined and courageous resistance -- the 39-year-old reporter has publicly insisted on his innocence and refused to accept a pardon -- and in part because the official charges against him were as transparently trumped up as his reporting was embarrassing to the Russian military. Prosecutors from Mr. Putin's FSB claimed that Mr. Pasko, who worked for a military newspaper, had taken notes at a meeting of officers and planned to leak them to Japanese media -- though no one says he did so. What Mr. Pasko unquestionably did do is provide Japanese television with a videotape of Russian ships pouring liquid nuclear waste into the Sea of Japan. That action on his part was not illegal, but Mr. Pasko was charged with treason and espionage. When he was acquitted of these charges at a first trial, the FSB appealed and persuaded a higher court to order a second one. Like several other independent journalists and academics targeted by the FSB, Mr. Pasko has seen his case drag on for years; even when judges are brave enough to dismiss charges or declare suspects innocent, the prosecutions continue.

In this case, the perversion of justice has been so glaring that even some of Mr. Putin's closest political allies have been embarrassed. "I understand how a man feels who is condemned for something he is not guilty of," said the speaker of Russia's parliament, Sergei Mironov, in repudiating Mr. Pasko's conviction. Amnesty International and the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiers have also spoken out. Their words offer the hope that Mr. Putin might yet be convinced that cases like Mr. Pasko's are incompatible with his new foreign policy; that his government cannot simultaneously conduct secret espionage trials of journalists and intellectuals, and demand the right to take part as an equal partner in decision-making by the Western democracies inside NATO. But Mr. Putin won't be convinced by human rights activists, or even his parliamentary speaker; he needs to get the message more forcefully from Western governments, starting with the Bush administration.

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