Imprisoned 'espionage' physicist wins early release

A Russian physicist who was jailed for 14 years in 2004 after being convicted of passing missile secrets to the Chinese has won early release after a surprise decision by a court in Siberia.

Krasnoyarsk regional court ordered the early release on parole of Valentin Danilov. A regional prosecutor argued that he should be freed on grounds of good behaviour and ill-health.

Danilov, the former head of thermo-physics at Krasnoyarsk State Technical University, could be free as early as Friday 23 November.

The 64-year-old research scientist’s arrest in 2001 and subsequent jury trial – the first of its kind in Russia for such a case – in December 2003 became the focus of international attention, with fellow physicists and scientists worldwide lobbying for his release.

Danilov always maintained his innocence, saying a report he gave to the Chinese was based on previous publications.

He served 18 months in pre-trial detention and stood for election as an independent to the Russian parliament on an environmental and freedom of conscience ticket while on bail.

Acquitted by the jury, Danilov was re-arrested after Russia’s Supreme Court ordered a re-trial and in November 2004 was sentenced to 14 years' hard labour, later reduced by one year.

Prosecutors claimed Danilov had used the results of research conducted for the Russian Ministry of Defence in his report for the Chinese.

Danilov, who on Tuesday 13 November watched the appeal proceeding via videolink from his prison cell in the Krasnoyarsk region, was said to have been surprised by the decision.

"I think he was quite shocked when he heard the opinion of the prosecutor who… supported the appeal [for early release]," his lawyer Yelena Yevmenova told Russia’s NTV television.

The court had convened the appeal hearing after officials from the regional interior ministry office had advised that Danilov had returned to prison after having been in hospital.

Danilov’s release was welcomed by campaigners and supporters.

Pavel Podvig, a US-based arms control researcher, told University World News: “It is very good news that Danilov is being released – his case was one of the most egregious ones. I wish it had happened earlier and the circumstances were different, but a release is a release.”

Danilov’s case was one of the first of a number of similar cases involving academics and researchers in sensitive areas who found themselves hauled before the courts on charges of espionage.

Russia’s apparent openness under President Boris Yeltsin during the 1990s – and the economic crisis of those times – led many university staff to shore up poverty-level incomes with private consultancy work, often with foreign institutions.

When Vladimir Putin became president in 2000 he set about restoring the role of Russia’s demoralised security services by focusing on what were seen as threats from both within and beyond the country’s borders.

The case of Igor Sutyagin

Danilov’s case was followed by that of Igor Sutyagin, a Moscow-based nuclear arms control researcher, who was sentenced to 15 years' hard labour in 2004 after being convicted of passing secrets to a London-based company alleged to have been a front for British security services.

Sutyagin argued that, since he never had security clearance, all the information he relied on was unclassified and from open sources.

Released in 2010 as part of a ‘spy swap’ after US investigators uncovered a Russian spy ring in America, Sutyagin is now based in London, where he is a research fellow in Russian studies at the Royal United Services Institute.

Sutyagin was pardoned in return for signing a declaration of his guilt as part of the spy swap deal, although he maintains his innocence.

He has since, through the European Court of Human Rights, sought to have his conviction overturned, although in September the Russian Supreme Court upheld his conviction.

In comments published on Friday on the blog of Russian radio station Echo Moscow, Sutyagin welcomed Danilov’s release, but cautioned that freedom would have as many challenges as imprisonment.

“I wish him a huge stock of spiritual strength, because the new phase of his life will not be easy,” Sutyagin wrote.

Coming out of prison might lead to ideas that one could return to life as it was before, he wrote. “Unfortunately, this does not work. You can in a very real sense say that today, Danilov will return to a different country than the Russia he left in 2004.”

New law widens definition of treason

Danilov’s release was ordered just a day before Putin signed a new law that considerably widens the definition of treason in Russia.

The new law means that anyone who passes state secrets to a foreign organisation – and not only foreign intelligence services – can be convicted of treason.

Even where no secrets have been divulged, people may be charged with treason if they provided consultancy or “other assistance” to a foreign state or international organisation that was “directed against Russia’s security”.

High treason carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in Russia, but the new law allows for sentences of up to four years for obtaining state secrets.

Human rights watchdogs fear the new law could be used to further stifle links between Russians and foreign organisations.

“The new law is not good news,” Podvig, the US-based arms control researcher, said. “As I understand, it makes it possible to prosecute pretty much anyone – the FSB [federal security service] could easily declare that any organisation is involved in anti-Russian activity.

“I hope that the new parts of the law won't be applied in practice, but I'm sure that they will have an effect of making many people feel vulnerable.”