Heroic Russian Whistle-Blower
Faces Treason Trial
With Confidence
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP-CP) -- A retired Russian naval officer who stands charged with treason expressed confidence Monday as he prepared for his long-awaited trial for exposing secrets about the Russian navy's disposal of nuclear waste.
Alexander Nikitin's trial, which opens in St. Petersburg today, is being carefully watched by international human-rights organizations, who have condemned the handling of the case.
Nikitin helped a Norwegian environmental group, the Bellona Foundation, compile a 1996 report criticizing sloppy handling of nuclear waste and reactors in Russia's North Sea Fleet.
"I feel very confident going into tomorrow's court case," Nikitin said at a news conference organized by Bellona.
Nikitin, 45, was arrested Feb. 6, 1996, by Russian Federal Security Service agents who accused him of exposing state secrets about nuclear waste-disposal. Nikitin and Bellona maintain the information came from public records.
During a visit to Russia in April 1996, Prime Minister Jean Chretien brought up Nikitin's case in talks with President Boris Yeltsin.
Nikitin was given a Canadian visa in October 1995.
Chretien said he jokingly told Yeltsin: "If he's too much of a problem for him, we'll take him in Canada because he has applied to be a Canadian citizen."
But Nikitin spent 10 months in detention and is still under orders not to leave St. Petersburg.
Amnesty International declared Nikitin a prisoner of conscience -- the first in Russia since physicist Andrei Sakharov.
Legal experts said the case could be a landmark for the rule of law in Russia. Nikitin has been accused of violating the 1993 State Secrets Act, which does not spell out what constitutes a state secret.
The Federal Security Service has refused to reveal the exact basis of the charges against Nikitin.
Many foreign observers will be attending the trial, including Amnesty, a representative of the U.S. consulate in St. Petersburg and U.S. congressman David Skaggs, a Colorado Democrat.
Journalists will be allowed to cover some parts of the proceedings but not all. Access will be at the discretion of Judge Sergei Golets.
Nikitin's report focused on decommissioned nuclear submarines that are stored in Murmansk harbor, full of nuclear fuel. The report said the subs could easily sink, causing a nuclear explosion worse than that at Chernobyl.
The report also said the Russian navy has dumped nuclear reactors on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, or failed to remove those that have sunk in accidents.
Ivan Pavlov, one of the lawyers working on the Nikitin case, was optimistic.
"We expect only one thing -- victory," he said Monday.
Diederik Lohman, head of the Moscow office of Human Rights Watch, was a little less hopeful Monday.
"We are hoping, of course, that this judge will acquit Nikitin. But we realize the chances of that are not that great and it is more likely that the case will be sent back for further investigation," said Lohman, who added only one-half a per cent to one per cent of all criminal cases in Russia end in acquittal.