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Russian `spy' goes on trial for treason

A Russian citizen accused of passing secrets to four British diplomats who were expelled from Moscow last year will go on trial for treason today. Interfax News Agency said Platon Obukhov, 29, who has been languishing in Lefortovo Prison since his arrest last summer, would appear in the Moscow City Court, but the trial would be closed to the public.

Obukhov, a junior diplomat and best-selling spy novelist, was expected to argue in his defence that he had only been meeting the British to gather material for his latest thriller. That much he told his interrogators, according to the newspaper Argumenty i Fakty, which commented that "playing with death" might have been a good title for the book, since that is the sentence Obukhov could theoretically receive if he is convicted. In the new democratic Russia a prison sentence is more likely.

The expulsion of the four British diplomats last May provoked an outraged response from London and revived memories of the Cold War. Observ-ers wondered whether the Russian citizen the British were accused of recruiting existed, or whether he had been invented to make Boris Yeltsin look tough in the run-up to the presidential election.

But Mikhail Lyubimov, a retired KGB officer expelled from Britain in the 1960s and later head of the British section at the Lubyanka, said the British appeared on this occasion to have been up to something. The British Embassy spokesman declined to comment yesterday.

Argumenty i Fakty, a newspaper which became highly popular in the glasnost era by supplying arguments and facts of which Soviet citizens have been starved, has provided most of the information about Obukhov. A second secretary in the Russian foreign ministry's prestigious North American Department, he dealt with disarmament questions, it said.

But "Platosha", as he was known, was more interested in writing spy novels with up-to-date plots involving the Mafia, which has flourished since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Two of his works "In The Embrace of the Spider" and "Fateful Woman" were available on street stalls which have sprung up since the end of censorship.

Obukhov's arrest had proved embarrassing for his high-ranking father, Alexei Obukhov, a Deputy foreign minister in the days when Eduard Shevardnadze ran the Soviet foreign ministry and later Russian ambassador to Denmark. He was recalled to Moscow and interrogated with his son. Cleared of suspicion, Obukhov Senior was allowed to return to Copenhagen but the shock was too much for him. He suffered a heart attack which forced him to retire.