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A Russian aviation technician was convicted of treason for writing about airplanes in online forum. Here's his story.

Meduza
Roman Dmitriev
Roman Dmitriev
Komsagram / YouTube

This Tuesday, the human rights group “Team 29” published a report about what happened to Roman Dmitriev, the aviation technician at an aircraft factory in Komsomolsk-on-Amur who was convicted of treason in October 2017. Dmitriev’s crimes included posting information about planes on the forum Airforce.ru, and — according to Russia’s Federal Security Service — handing over secret data to a supposed Israeli intelligence agent. Last year, the Khabarovsk Regional Court sentenced Dmitriev to 4.5 years in a maximum-security prison. He was 26 years old at the time.

After the Khabarovsk Regional Court’s reached its verdict, the FSB briefly summarized the case, without revealing any details (not even Dmitriev’s name). An anonymous source familiar with the investigation and the trial later provided that information to Team 29.

Federal agents arrested Roman Dmitriev in April 2016 at the Gagarin Aircraft Plant in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, where he’d worked since 2013. When first interrogating him, officers asked about his comments in an Internet forum, threatened him with pretrial detention, and simultaneously offered him a suspended sentence. Then they released him without any explanation. Dmitriev went back to work, but in September he was charged with disclosing state secrets (punishable by up to four years in prison). After he signed a confession, the charges were raised to treason (punishable by up to 20 years).

Footage from the raid on Roman Dmitriev’s apartment and his hearing at the Khabarovsk Regional Court (no sound)
Komsagram

At the Gagarin Aircraft Plant, Dmitriev had level-three security clearance (the lowest there is). One employee at the factory told Team 29 that the information Dmitriev shared online was first published on the enterprise’s local network. According to Team 29, federal officials opened another investigation against a fellow technician, whom they accused of leaking state secrets to Dmitriev. The second suspect’s surname was Laiter, and the case against him was likely “closed or never went to court,” says Team 29.

The FSB classified three of Dmitriev’s 230 online comments as state secrets. In one comment, for example, he wrote about the export of Sukhoi Su-35 and Su-57 aircraft to China between 2016 and 2020, also listing the planes’ tail numbers. The first expert evaluation of Dmitriev’s online activity determined that he had disclosed no state secrets, but the Gagarin Aircraft Plant’s security department later conducted its own review and decided that he had leaked classified information. According to Team 29, Dmitriev’s comments with this data are still accessible at Airforce.ru.

Prosecutors also argued that Dmitriev passed state secrets to a former Russian pilot and Israeli citizen named Mikhail Tsaiger. A military history buff who likes to talk shop in online forums, Tsaiger reportedly met Dmitriev on one of these websites in 2009. The Khabarovsk Regional Court determined that Dmitriev identified Tsaiger as a Mossad agent, “using his knowledge gleaned from films and books.” Dmitriev then allegedly tried to sell state secrets to Tsaiger. When Tsaiger didn’t pay him the agreed-upon fee, Dmitriev shared some of the classified information at Airforce.ru, supposedly looking for new buyers.

An Israeli citizen and former pilot in Russia, Mikhail Tsaiger has been declared a Mossad agent by Russia’s FSB
An Israeli citizen and former pilot in Russia, Mikhail Tsaiger has been declared a Mossad agent by Russia’s FSB

Tsaiger told Team 29 that he is not an Israeli intelligence operative. He says he first started talking to Dmitriev about nine years ago, when Dmitriev was just eighteen. “I didn’t ask him for any secret information, and he didn’t provide me with any,” Tsaiger says. He acknowledges that they corresponded by email, but he insists that there was nothing in their letters “that could have interested any intelligence agency in the world.”

Roman Dmitriev’s defense attorney, Alexey Livitsky, was hired by the Gagarin Aircraft Plant’s legal department. A source told Team 29 that Livitsky never once visited Dmitriev in pretrial detention, never met with him alone, and did not attend the reading of his verdict. Speaking to Team 29, Livitsky said, “The case proceeded according to the law.” He declined to offer any additional details, citing a gag order, the classified investigation, state secrets, and attorney-client privilege.

Dmitriev’s case was held according to a special, expedited procedure, after he signed a plea bargain and confessed to the charges.

Summary of Team 29’s report by Alexander Baklanov, translation by Kevin Rothrock