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100 convictions and just one acquittal. A new study looks at the past 20 years of Russia's treason and espionage cases.

Meduza
Ecologist Alexander Nikitin, accused of treason and disclosing state secrets and ultimately acquitted, March 29, 2000
Ecologist Alexander Nikitin, accused of treason and disclosing state secrets and ultimately acquitted, March 29, 2000
Oleg Buldakov / TASS

The human rights group Team 29 has released a new report about every known treason and espionage case in Russia’s criminal justice system over the past 20 years. An association of human rights lawyers and journalists, Team 29 has also provided legal assistance to several suspects in these trials. Meduza summarizes the report’s main findings.

In the past 20 years, Russia has convicted roughly 100 people of treason and espionage, 278 people of disclosing state secrets, and five people of illegally accessing state secrets. According to Team 29, Russian citizens are charged with treason, foreigners are charged with espionage, people with access to classified information are charged with disclosing state secrets, and anyone without this access is charged with illegally obtaining state secrets (this final offense was only formally criminalized in 2012). Punishable by up to 20 years in prison, treason and espionage are the most serious of these crimes.

Of everyone charged with treason or espionage in Russia over the past two decades, courts have acquitted just one man and dismissed cases against another three suspects: Svetlana Davydova, Nikolai Panasevich, and Sergey Minakov. According to Team 29, the secrecy of treason and espionage cases exacerbates the accusatory bias of Russia’s criminal justice system. Whenever an independent lawyer finds their way into one of these trials, they often say the charges are flimsy and accuse investigators and judges of violating their clients’ right to due process.

In at least 23 cases involving treason or espionage charges, state-appointed lawyers or private counsels committed actions that harmed their clients, according to Team 29’s research. Attorneys usually urged defendants to confess and cooperate with investigators, also waiting too long to file necessary appellate paperwork. The report cites an interview with the singer Vladimir Martynenko, who says he signed the first sheet of paper police handed him, “without even reading it,” on the advice of his lawyer, Elena Lebedeva-Romanova. (The same attorney also defended former GRU officer Sergey Skripal, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison, before he was later swapped and sent to Britain, where he was famously poisoned in March 2018.)

In at least 19 treason and espionage cases, state investigators apparently tried to falsify evidence — for example, by backdating documents, classifying shared information retroactively, or refusing to consult competent, independent experts and relying instead on “pocket” specialists. Team 29 cites the cases against Anatoly Babkin and Valentin Danilov, where the same expert witnesses were called, though one case concerned satellite electrification and the other dealt with the movement of an underwater vessel in an air pocket.

Russian laws are designed in such a way that the list of state secrets itself is classified. Without access to this classified data, defendants often have no idea what constitutes a state secret. According to Team 29’s report, at least 21 people convicted of treason in the past two decades didn’t even have access to state secrets. In trials dealing with classified information, moreover, the case materials can be treated as state secrets, prohibiting lawyers from familiarizing themselves with the evidence against their clients. Convictions and sentences are often classified, too, even though these records can’t be secret, because convicts are supposed to be able to challenge their verdicts.

People convicted of treason or espionage are often sentenced to punishments “below the minimum.” Team 29 believes this is because judges frequently have doubts about suspects’ guilt, but investigators’ charges effectively guarantee a conviction in Russia’s justice system, meaning that the role of judges is reduced to choosing the defendant's penalty. Convicts in at least 39 treason and espionage cases received first-instance court sentences below the legal minimum, including two probation sentences. Since entering the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin, “guided by the principles of humanism,” has pardoned at least 17 treason or espionage convicts (later exchanging 12 of these people).

At the same time, Russian legislation criminalizing treason, espionage, and the disclosure of state secrets has only gotten tougher. In 2008, defendants lost the right to demand jury trials, where the acquittal rate was twice as high. In 2012, federal criminal codes against these offenses were expanded to include language about “other cases,” “other assistance,” and the phrase “Russia’s external security” was replaced with the vaguer wording “Russia’s security.” Team 29’s researchers believe that virtually any kind of help rendered to a foreign citizen can now be prosecuted as a crime against the Russian state.

Russia tends to prosecute people for treason and espionage in accordance with Moscow’s foreign policy, Team 29 argues. Of roughly 100 cases, 18 involve allegations of spying for the United States, and 17 cases relate to spying for China. Involved in 26 different cases, the leader here, however, is the tiny country of Georgia. All treason and espionage cases involving Georgia were launched after the five-day war in August 2008, and punishments in at least 13 of these trials were below the minimum sentence provided by law. Team 29 also says there’s been a similar spike in treason and espionage cases related to Ukraine, leading to four convictions since 2014, with another four now in progress.

Summary by Olga Korelina, translation by Kevin Rothrock