The strange case of Britain's 'spy' in a Moscow jail

'He is 28 years old. He looks 70, with a long beard, like Dostoyevsky when he returned from Siberia'
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A few days ago, when I was guest on a phone-in on Moscow Echo radio, the interviewer asked me about the Platon Obukhov case. Platon is the 28-year-old Russian diplomat who was arrested exactly a year ago on charges of spying for the British secret service, as a result of which several members of the British embassy in Moscow and of the Russian embassy in London were expelled on a tit-for-tat basis reminiscent of the Cold War.

I said that I knew very little about it. I had no idea whether or not Platon was spying. However, I had heard that he has mental problems, which would complicate the legal position. If he was spying for Britain, he might be tried under Russian law. But if he was mentally ill at the time, any trial on such a charge would be a travesty of justice. A man cannot be a schizophrenic and a traitor simultaneously.

Returning to the Metropole Hotel late that evening, I was telephoned by Anatoli Kucherena, Platon's lawyer, inviting me to call on him. The next morning I went to his office and spoke to him for an hour. I also met Olga Obukhova, Platon's mother. Platon's father, Aleksei, is an eminent Russian diplomat, a former Soviet deputy foreign minister and a disarmament expert. A year ago, when Platon was arrested, his parents lived in Copenhagen, where Aleksei was ambassador.

Anatoli and Olga asked me to explain Platon's case, and especially his medical problems and the conditions under which he is being kept, to Amnesty International and other world organisations. I have done this.

One could say that the story so far shows how dramatically democracy has advanced in Russia in recent years. Until a few years ago I was not allowed into Russia, still less to speak on the radio, and it would have been the kiss of death for any Moscow defending lawyer to ask a foreigner to help his client, especially in an espionage case.

But the story has another side, for which I was not prepared. The Russian security service (known as "FSB") has seen better days. It used to be the all-pervasive KGB, with hundreds of thousands of staff and millions of occasional informers. Its men and women were well paid. But now, with the Cold War being over, its value is under question and its budget is always being cut. The suspicion is that the FSB is using the Obukhov case to justify its existence.

A year ago officers of the FSB announced the discovery of 38 spies in high Russian positions. The arrest of Platon was proclaimed as the smashing of a ring of super-spies and the first in a series of future FSB successes. Russians waited with bated breath to find out who the other 37 would be. But no names have been announced and some Russians are sceptical enough to wonder whether they exist at all.

Having announced this great catch, it is embarrassing when they have only one minnow to show for it. And it is even more embarrassing when it emerges that Platon has a history of mental health problems, kept secret since his childhood by his professionally successful family, and that he is in no condition to be put up as a defendant in the sort of show trial that they would like to see.

Anatoli and Olga painted for me a picture of a deeply disturbed young man - of great energy, a linguist and a writer. He has written 18 books, eight of them already sold for pounds 2,000 each to publishers who specialise in intrigue, spies, violence and sex. "My son is ill, but he is not an idiot," Olga says. "He lives in an upside-down world all of his own. His latest book is called The Murder of the Mayor of Vladivostok."

His other books, which his mother showed me, all laid out on a table, have similarly lurid covers and titles: Femme Fatale, Game of Death and The Sex Demon. They are books, it seems, that Muscovites read in the metro. He writes at amazing speed, 20 pages a day, and poetry in English about sharks and phantoms. It is the product of a disturbed mind.

Platon spent last summer in Lefortovo prison under interrogation. On 28 July, he was shown on Russian television blabbering incoherently, wearing a smock, a dunce's cap and mismatching socks. "The aim was to humiliate my client, to make people hate him," Anatoli says. "In fact, people just felt sorry for him." Anatoli complains that his client is being denied medical and legal help as well as visits from his family. "Things are supposed to have changed in this country. But my client's case shows the FSB behaving like the KGB did in the old days."

The FSB by now understood its problem. Could it really present this sad creature as an evil super-spy? On 5 November it transferred him to the infamous Serbsky Institute, where Vladimir Bukovsky and other well-known dissidents used to be tortured because of their political views. He was examined by psychiatrists appointed by the ministry of defence. Doctors nominated by his family were allowed no access. On 5 February this year he was transferred to the medical wing of Butyrka prison to await the result.

"That report has been written and rewritten many times," Olga says. It was made known to her early this week and yesterday on the telephone from Moscow she told me what it says. Platon is mentally ill, it seems. But he became mentally ill in prison. When he committed his act of treason for British intelligence he was sane. That means apparently that he can now be treated for his illness. Then, when he is fit to stand trial, he can face the charge of treason in court and, if convicted, undergo the appropriate penalty.

Meanwhile, he lives in a 15-man cell in Butyrka jail. There are four bunks in which the men take turns to sleep. Anatoli saw him a week ago. "He is 28 years old. He looks 70 years old, with a long beard, like Dostoyevsky when he returned from Siberia."

The only food provided in the cell is cabbage. Prisoners are expected to be fed by their families. Every few days Olga goes to Butyrka and queues for four or five hours, in order to deliver a parcel to her son. No metal or glass is allowed in the parcel and no coffee. Chocolate is permitted. She knows that the better the parcel, the better her son is liable to be treated by the 14 other disturbed men who share his cell.