Media and human rights groups have strongly denounced the conviction on treason charges by a Russian military court Sunday of an investigative journalist who publicized information about the Russian Navy's dumping of nuclear waste in waters off the Pacific port of Vladivostok.
A three-judge court sentenced Grigory Pasko to four years in prison and gave him credit for the 20 months he has already served in jail. Although prosecutors had asked for a nine-year sentence, Pasko's lawyers announced they have already appealed to the Military Collegium of Russia's Supreme Court in pursuit of a full acquittal.
Rights groups reacted to the verdict and sentence with outrage.
"Today's ruling demonstrates that the trial of Grigory Pasko was nothing more than a political vendetta against a journalist who made public information that embarrassed the Russian military but served the public," said Joel Simon of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Amnesty International USA director William Shulz called the verdict a "grave blow to human rights in the Russian Federation." Pasko was named a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty when he was first arrested four years ago.
"His prosecution, recalling cases of repression of free speech in the former Soviet Union, has been a window into a justice system that continues to operate in secrecy and in the service of political masters, rather than the law," said Shulz.
A Navy captain and military journalist with Boyevaya Vakhta (Battle Watch), Pasko documented in articles and videotapes the Pacific Fleet's practice of dumping of old weapons and nuclear waste in the ocean.
After his November 1997 arrest on charges of passing classified documents to Japanese news media, Pasko spent 20 months in prison awaiting trial.
He was eventually acquitted of treason charges by one court in mid-1999 but found guilty of abusing his authority as an officer. He was immediately amnestied, but, four months later, the Military Collegium canceled the trial court's verdict and ordered a new trial.
After a series of delays, that trial got underway last July.
Pasko's defense team argued that the proceedings lacked any basis in Russian law due to Article 7 of the Federal Law on State Secrets which rules out classification of information on environmental dangers. It argued that the prosecution's reliance on a secret defense-ministry decree should have been thrown out of court since the Russian Constitution bars the use of secret legislation in criminal cases.
The defense also challenged many of the prosecution's witnesses, several of whom acknowledged that the Federal Security Service falsified their statements or pressed them to commit perjury.
The judge in the case threw out nine of 10 counts of treason against Pasko but found him guilty of collecting information on secret military exercises with the intention of providing it to Japanese journalists. Pasko has always denied the charge, saying the evidence on which it was based consisted only of notes on a Pacific Fleet meeting that were found in his apartment when he was arrested.
"The legal basis for the trial was questionable, the evidence was faulty, and in the end Pasko was convicted after being tried twice on the same charges, making him the clear victim of double jeopardy," said CPJ's European coordinator, Alex Lupis.
"The Military Collegium should immediately recognize the absurdity of today's verdict and overturn the lower court's ruling," he added. Pasko's detention is a black mark on the Russian justice system and further undermines President [Vladimir] Putin's stated commitment to press freedom."
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