Imprisoned in a land where secrecy keeps the law in its chilling grip

Local hero Alexander Nikitin
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The Independent Online
Moscow - Boris Yeltsin may have convinced many Russians that he genuinely wants a more open society when he admitted to having heart disease, but his words will not cut much ice with Tatyana Chernova. As the President revealed the truth to the world, her husband was sitting in a security- service prison - the victim of a nation's powerful desire to keep its secrets.

"I would like to believe that our country is not entirely run by the security services," she said wearily, "but my experience is that they seem to have penetrated every structure, every organisation. They have been openly watching me, my friends and my family, ever since ... they arrested him."

That was seven months ago. Early on a dark, cold morning, three agents from the security services arrived at their apartment in St Petersburg and took Alexander Nikitin away, telling him that they wanted him to act as a witness in a case. The charge was "betraying the Motherland" - and he turned out to be the defendant. Ever since, he has been trying to survive in a cell of six square metres, and fighting battles for his right, first to have his own lawyer (he won), and then to get bail (he lost). Friends say that there are signs his health is beginning to fail.

Mr Nikitin's alleged crime is to have supplied information to the environmental group, Bellona, in Oslo about the dangers presented by Russia's Northern Fleet based at Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula, near the Norwegian border.

As a Russian naval sea captain, who became a Defence Ministry inspector overseeing radiation hazards, Mr Nikitin knew a lot about the subject.

Just over two months after his arrest, Bellona published a detailed report concentrating on the findings of Mr Nikitin, who had become one of their researchers. It revealed, among other horrors, that 52 decommissioned Russian nuclear submarines were still waiting to have radioactive waste removed from their reactors; large quantities of solid waste were being kept outside special storage facilities, because these were full, and liquid waste was being kept in tanks which were in poor condition. But the point of publishing his account - which was timed for the start of a G7 summit in Moscow - was also to show that he had acquired his information from publicly available sources, and not from classified files.

The arrest of Mr Nikitin, 44, prompted rumblings from the Council of Europe, which less than a month earlier agreed to admit Russia as a member, despite its poor human rights record. It was also taken up by environmental and human rights organisations. Amnesty International has declared Mr Nikitin a "prisoner of conscience".

The Russians "are involved in scare tactics", said Rachel Denber of Human Rights Watch in Helsinki. And, she points out, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the new incarnation of the KGB, is acting illegally: a Russian law on state secrets, passed in 1993, bans the classifying of information about the environment.

So far, all protests have fallen on deaf ears. Six months ago Boris Yeltsin promised the Norwegian government that Russia would drop its complaints against Bellona.

But Mr Nikitin remains locked up in an FSB jail, and there is every sign that Russia will handle the case in its own way - which means he will be tried without a jury behind closed doors. Technically, treason is punishable by firing squad, but if found guilty, he is more likely to be imprisoned for 10 to 15 years.