Whistle-blower emerges from jail in Moscow: A dissident Russian chemist has suddenly been freed. Andrew Higgins reports

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The Independent Online
MINUTES after the United States Justice Department announced the arrest of an alleged KGB mole in Washington, a skinny 58-year-old Russian chemist locked up in Moscow for leaking state secrets was summoned from his cell at Sailor's Silence prison. The warden wanted to see him.

He told the scientist, a dissident chemical weapons researcher, to gather his things, gave him 50 roubles to buy a Metro ticket, then told him to go home. 'I won't say au revoir,' said the warden. 'It is not our tradition here. Let's say farewell. Try not to come back.'

Vil Mirzayanov has no intention of going back. His case, though, rumbles on, 16 long months after he first entered the murky and tangled bureaucratic byways of Russia's justice and security systems.

The timing of his release late on Tuesday evening stirred speculation of a possible attempt by Moscow's fragmented but still powerful security apparatus to take some heat off its more important venture in the United States.

Dr Mirzayanov himself sees no direct link. But back in his Moscow flat yesterday with his wife, a Tatar-language translator, and two children, Dr Mirzayanov warned of a more general and ominous connection: the KGB has been disbanded, the Cold War declared over, but the security bureaucracy, spies abroad and secret policemen at home, battles on.

In December President Boris Yeltsin declared the Security Ministry, the successor agency to the KGB, a bastion of unrepentent Soviet thinking and ordered it to be shut down. In its place was established a new agency called the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service. But Mr Yeltsin then appointed as its head Nikolai Golushko, boss of the very ministry he had just declared beyond reform. The duties of the old KGB are now divided among nearly a dozen separate security and intelligence agencies, all nominally under the control of the president.

Mr Mirzayanov is sceptical: 'They are all part of the chain. It is a system that can never really change. It acts with autonomy, from everyone and everything. Secrets and spies. This is their business, this is their bread. The affair (in America) shows they act as they always did. Don't be nave. Yeltsin cannot reform them even if he wanted to. These are the structures Yeltsin himself now depends on.'

Dr Mirzayanov, whose first name Vil derives from V I Lenin's initials, was first arrested in October 1992 after he blew the whistle on what he said was continuing research into a new generation of chemical weapons code-named Novichok, 'newcomer'. His claims, made in interviews with Moscow News and then the Baltimore Sun, have never been denied. Such research would not violate international agreements but would contradict pledges made by Mikhail Gorbachev and Mr Yeltsin.

The scientist denies divulging chemical formulas. His arrest outraged human rights groups and liberal Russian politicians worried about a resurgence of Soviet security forces. He was released from Lefortovo prison after 11 days in 1992 but authorities pressed on with the investigation. Among witnesses interrogated was an American journalist, Will Englund.

Dr Mirzayanov was taken back to prison, this time Sailor's Silence, last month after he refused to answer questions at a closed trial in Moscow. The case has since been sent back to the prosecutor for further investigation.

After a spell in a filthy holding cell so small that prisoners slept in shifts, Dr Mirzayanov was moved to a more comfortable cell previously occupied by Soviet officials jailed after the 1991 August putsch. Russia's prosecutor, General Alexei Kazannik, seems eager to drop what has become an embarrassing affair. Dr Mirzayanov says he will sue for compensation.

The driving force behind the case, Dr Mirzayanov believes, is General Sergei Balashov, a former head of the KGB's Investigation Department and agent in the Fifth Directorate, responsible in the Soviet era for monitoring and harassing dissidents. 'They want to show they are still in control. I'm lucky. There is a lot of publicity,' he says.