Scientists Dished 12-Year Sentence for Espionage
Published: June 21, 2012 (Issue # 1713)
The St. Petersburg City Court on Wednesday sentenced two local scientists to lengthy terms in prison for treason amid protests from the international human rights community.
Yevgeny Afanasiev and Svyatoslav Bobyshev are professors at the city’s State Military Mechanical University. Afanasiev was found guilty of treason in the form of espionage and sentenced to 12-and-a-half years in a penal colony. Bobyshev was sentenced to 12 years in a colony for being an accessory to treason.
Both men pleaded not guilty and denied their involvement in any criminal activity.
The Afanasiev and Bobyshev case has become one of the most resonant treason and espionage cases in the city since the 1996-1999 saga of the environmentalist Alexander Nikitin, a researcher for the Norwegian ecological organization Bellona who was accused of passing classified information to Norway’s secret service.
Afanasiev and Bobyshev both spent several months in China in 2009, lecturing at the Polytechnical University in Harbin. Prosecutors have alleged that in April and May 2009, both professors passed classified information and revealed state secrets concerning the Bulava missile complex — specifically underwater missile launch details — to the Chinese secret service. The General Prosecutor’s Office had earlier approved the charges. The scientists were arrested in March 2010, and their case was sent to court in the beginning of September 2011.
The trial was closed to the public.
Both professors maintain they only gave lectures at a university in Harbin, and stress that all aspects of the teaching process, including the contents of their lectures, had been approved and monitored by the administration of the Military Mechanical University.
More than forty scholars and researchers from the Military Mechanical University and other Russian universities who have known the two convicts for a number of years have written a letter of protest to the prosecutors, in which they argued that the trial is nothing but overzealousness on the part of the security services.
“As for the alleged financial or personal motives that drove the two scientists to treason, it would be logical to ask how it is possible to damage the interests of Russia by teaching Chinese students the basics,” the letter’s authors write.
“The logic of the security services is this: Teaching a competitor means betraying the motherland! If one follows that reason, we must ban our lecturers from teaching foreigners altogether. After all, there is no guarantee that this knowledge will never be used against us. Far be it from us to question the competence of the trial. Yet not a single person out of dozens and dozens of scientists with whom we have discussed this court case could believe even for a moment that Svyatoslav Bobyshev and Yevgeny Afanasiev are indeed guilty of these crimes.”
The Committee for the Protection of Scientists branded the trial a triumph of espionage mania and witch-hunting, and Yury Vdovin, a human rights advocate with the Citizens’ Watch pressure group, is convinced that the treason case is at the least unsubstantiated.
“It is imaginary secrecy that the prosecutors were talking about,” he said. “Both scientists had their lectures approved by the management of the university, and their contracts were legal. The thing is that the country’s security services have to show that they are catching spies, otherwise the Kremlin would accuse them of not doing anything, and of being inefficient.
The eminent human rights lawyer Yury Schmidt, who represented the environmentalist Alexander Nikitin and jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, predicted the discouraging outcome of the trial.
“The odds are really against the scientists, especially considering the current political context,” he said. “During the past decade, similar charges have been brought with success against a number of scholars and researchers across Russia. There is a tendency to make the punishment tougher: Those sentenced now are receiving longer prison terms compared to similar cases 10 years ago.”
The most recent espionage scandal involving a Russian scientist occurred in 2007, when Moscow academic Igor Reshetin, general director of the Central Machinery Construction Research Institute, was sentenced to 11-and-a-half years in a penal colony for passing technology to China. Reshetin admitted sharing the technology with his Chinese counterparts, but argued that the materials were not classified, and that on the contrary, they were allowed to be exported and discussed with foreign partners.
In 2003, Krasnoyarsk physicist Valentin Danilov was sentenced to 13 years in a colony for espionage. The prosecution claimed that the scholar had passed state secrets to China.
From 1996 to 2000, Schmidt successfully defended the researcher and ecologist Nikitin, who remains the only person to have won a treason or espionage case against the country’s security services in the history of the U.S.S.R. and modern Russia.
Until 1985, Nikitin served as a naval captain in the Soviet Northern Fleet, where he worked as a chief engineer on nuclear powered submarines. In 1995, Nikitin wrote an analytical report for Bellona on the potential environmental hazards of radioactive waste and decommissioned Russian nuclear submarines, specifically, in northern Russia. The report resulted in him being charged with high treason.