Vladimir Putin was accused of presiding over a stealthy drift towards Soviet-style authoritarianism after a Russian court sentenced an academic to 15 years in jail for allegedly spying for the United States.
Human rights activists said the sentence seemed unduly harsh and said the closed-door trial appeared to have been rigged against Igor Sutyagin, a researcher for the respected USA Canada Institute in Moscow.
Prosecutors said that Sutyagin handed over state secrets about Russian nuclear submarines and missile warning systems to a British firm called Alternative Futures, which was purportedly a front for the American CIA. Sutyagin, 39, did not deny offering consultancy services to the company to supplement his salary, but that insisted the information was all in the public domain and that the firm was, to his knowledge, not a front for the CIA.
"I am not guilty,'' he said after he was sentenced. "I am only guilty in so far as I had contact with foreigners. In fact, only newspapers, magazines and books, most of which were published abroad, were the source of my work.''
Human rights activists say that his trial by jury was peppered with irregularities and chaired by a judge who allegedly went out of her way to skew the jury against him. "The government in Russia, and this is especially true of Putin's government, is doing all it can to control all spheres of public life,'' Alexander Petrov of Human Rights Watch said.
"The state needs spies,'' he told NTV TV. "I believe the judge has manipulated the jury.''
The judge, Marina Komarova, apparently ignored the public existence of the information he passed on and instructed the 12-member jury to merely pass judgment on whether Sutyagin handed over information or not. There was no reference to state secrets. Instead, the jury was asked to decide whether he had been recruited by a foreign intelligence service and whether he was paid for it. The jury unanimously found him guilty of high treason and espionage.
Sutyagin, who has been detained since 1999, has been repeatedly denied bail and has already has his case heard once. That trial found the evidence inadequate and uncompelling. That jury, and the judge, were replaced and Ms Komarova, who has a track record of trying spy cases and finding against the defendants, was brought in.
Sutyagin's lawyer, Boris Kuznetsov, said yesterday that the case had the fingerprints of the FSB (the successor organisation to the KGB) all over it. "Before the trial he was approached by FSB agents who made him the offer that, if he pleaded guilty, he would be convicted, but released from prison based on the time he had already spent behind bars,'' Mr Kuznetsov said. "We will appeal, because Sutyagin is innocent. Moreover, there were numerous violations of the criminal procedural code during the trial.''
Many observers believe the FSB has been emboldened because Mr Putin, a former FSB chief, is in charge of Russia and that they are taking the lead from him. There is also a feeling that the FSB was keen to get a conviction, which it was denied last December. To the FSB's horror, a jury cleared a Siberian scientist, Valentin Danilov, of selling space secrets to China, which brought calls for jury trials for espionage cases to be stopped.
If Russia's supreme court rejects Sutyagin's appeal, his lawyers intend to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, citing allegedly illegal detention and the breach of his right to a fair trial.Reuse content