- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2000

Russia's highest court yesterday ended the legal ordeal of environmentalist Aleksandr Nikitin by quashing a final attempt by the country's intelligence service to keep treason charges against the former naval officer alive.

Mr. Nikitin, whose cause has attracted international support, has battled federal prosecutors and the Federal Security Service, the direct successor to the KGB, since the publication in 1996 of his expose of the environmental dangers posed by more than 50 abandoned Russian nuclear subs in a remote shipyard near the border with Norway.

"I'm very happy," Mr. Nikitin, 47, told reporters outside the courtroom of the Presidium of the Russian Supreme Court. "This is a very, very small step toward creating a state ruled by law."

Mr. Nikitin's case and the issue of Russian nuclear controls shot into the headlines last month with the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk and the loss of its 118 crewmen.

Mr. Nikitin, who was in Washington while futile rescue efforts were under way, said the Kursk's onboard nuclear reactors could pose a fresh near-term threat to the Northern Sea, a charge Russia's military has denied.

Yesterday's court action "shows that the Russian courts are one part of the system that's actually functioning pretty well," said Thomas Jandl, director of the U.S. office of Bellona, the Norway-based environmental group that worked with Mr. Nikitin in compiling his 1996 report.

"The Kursk incident certainly helped our case because it showed the inherent problems in the system and that the government could not be trusted," Mr. Jandl said.

President Clinton in August praised Mr. Nikitin's work, and the State Department and lawmakers from both parties have expressed concern over the environmentalist's lengthy prosecution.

"This investigation will send a wrong message to the global business, environmental and human rights groups at a time when your government is seeking Western financial support," two senators and seven congressmen wrote in a July 25 letter of protest to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Federal Security Service, known in Russian as the FSB, charged that Mr. Nikitin, a former submarine officer, leaked secret information to foreigners in working with Bellona to compile the report.

Mr. Nikitin was jailed for more than a year and has been tried 13 separate times.

After a St. Petersburg court acquitted Mr. Nikitin of the treason charges in December, state prosecutors in May took the unusual step of trying to revive the case by arguing that the defendant's own rights had been violated in the investigation.

Prosecutors and the FSB sought a court ruling allowing them to gather more evidence in the case.

But the Presidium Court took just 30 minutes yesterday to affirm the acquittal.

Environmental policy has become contested ground under Mr. Putin, himself a former KGB agent.

A second former naval officer, Grigory Pasko, spent 20 months in jail on treason charges for giving Japanese journalists videotapes showing illegal dumping of nuclear waste by Russia's Pacific Fleet.

Mr. Putin has moved to clip the independence of Russia's leading governmental environmental agency, and the Ministry of Justice this year announced that all nongovernmental organizations, including environmental groups, must register with the government or disband.

Mr. Nikitin is helping organize a national drive to collect signatures for a referendum to re-establish an independent environmental agency and to enforce laws preventing the importation of foreign nuclear waste.

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