Grigorii Pasko: A Writer's Plight

Spotlight Story, Centerpoint March 2005 by Dana Steinberg

Mar 08, 2005

Good investigative reporting can expose and help correct societal injustice. But in Russia, such reporting can land you in jail. Such was the fate of Grigorii Pasko, a former naval captain and military journalist who spent nearly four years in prison for exposing an environmental hazard.

Pasko had spent 20 years as a military journalist, often reporting on ecological problems in Russia's Far East. In 1997, he publicized environmental abuses committed by the Pacific Fleet, including the improper disposal of nuclear waste. Arrested and charged with treason, Pasko spent 20 months in pre-trial detention and was then acquitted. But the prosecution reopened his case and, in a second trial, Pasko was charged with abuse of office and sentenced to four years in a forced labor camp. In 2002, Pasko rejected a presidential pardon, which he said would amount to an admission of guilt. After serving two-thirds of his sentence, he was released on parole, and all but one of the treason charges were dismissed.

Pasko asserted, "The outside world changed; the Soviet Union disintegrated, the Iron Curtain crashed down, and yet the principles for prosecuting those charged with treason against the government stayed the same."

Pasko is spending five months at the Wilson Center as the Kennan Institute's Galina Starovoitova Fellow in Human Rights and Conflict Resolution, working on a comparative analysis of how U.S. and Russian courts handle "spy" cases. He contends that Russia's Law on Government Secrets and the Criminal Code needs revision, the judicial process needs transparency, and adequate legislation should be written to protect innocent people. He said Russia has charged 12 innocent people with espionage in the past nine years.

One such case was Alexander Nikitin, another former Starovoitova fellow and navy captain, who exposed environmental abuses by the navy-in this case the Northern Fleet-and was repeatedly prosecuted. To date, Nikitin remains the only person of the 12 to be acquitted by the court. "Nikitin's case involved no human rights violations, which was confirmed by the European Court in Strasbourg [France] just three months ago," Pasko said. All others, including Pasko, have been sentenced and allege human rights abuses. "We've all been tormented in various ways."

Since his arrest, journalists have not covered environmental hazards in the Far East. "Whether dangerous or not, nobody has taken on the topic," he said. "Much of this information is now classified and, after my case, journalists are afraid to write about it."

Pasko said the situation has worsened for journalists in recent years. "There is not a single free newspaper in Russia today. There are good papers, some of them democratic, but not one is truly independent." In fact, the one newspaper with independent funding, Kommersant, lost a court case on January 31 and had to pay the equivalent of a $10 million fine, the first such court claim ever. Pasko commented, "This is an example of how an economically independent newspaper can be crushed by the state."

After completing his research at the Center, Pasko plans to return to Russia and continue to pursue his journalism career. "There were no other good propositions," he joked. He also aspires to clear his name officially of all charges rather than seek asylum elsewhere. "In all good conscience," said Pasko, "it's just not expedient to use that status."

NOTE: Special thanks to Kennan Institute Scholar Oleksandr Merezhko for translation help during this interview.