July 01, 2000

And Justice For All?

One early February morning in 1996, Navy captain-turned-environmentalist Alexander Nikitin opened the door to a group of plainclothes agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB). The agents told him he had to come with them and testify as a witness in an espionage case. His testimony took place in a solitary confinement cell of the St. Petersburg FSB jail. It lasted 10 months and eight days, during most of which he was denied a lawyer, a meeting with his wife, a doctor, or even official criminal charges.

After the FSB—the successor of the Soviet-era KGB—finally released Nikitin in December 1996, he was forbidden to leave St. Petersburg. He was charged eight times for the same crime—high treason and espionage—and indicted twice. All charges were based on secret military decrees, many of which were written only after his arrest. After four years of constant surveillance and harassment by security agents, Nikitin was acquitted, first by a local court, then by the Supreme Court of Russia. Although the decision was final, the prosecution still has until April 2001 to appeal the acquittal.

In an attempt to break through what he called “circles of hell,” in reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy, and what looked like a scene from a Franz Kafka novel, Nikitin sought a final, just resolution of his case outside of Russia. In 1999, he filed an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France—as did nearly 1,000 of his compatriots, forced to seek justice elsewhere out of desperation at not receiving a fair trial in their homeland.

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