Russia’s secret treason investigations


In Russia, the number of state treason cases is rising. Secret service tactics mean we know less and less about who is under investigation. Русский

Gleb Belichenko
22 October 2015

Recent statistics show that four to six people face trial for state treason per year in Russia. In 2014, this number rose sharply: 15 people were sent to prison on treason charges. But by the end of 2015, this record might be broken again. The number of espionage cases seems to suggest that Russia is in the throes of ‘spymania’.

Yet given these cases are all being investigated and processed in secret, the information we have is limited. In November 2012, Vladimir Putin signed a document introducing changes to three articles of the Criminal Code. Article 275 (Treason) was given an extended description, including the formula ‘variously aiding another state in activities aimed against the security of the Russian Federation’, which expanded the definition of treason. The new version of Article 283 (Revealing a state secret) makes it possible to initiate proceedings against an individual who does not have access to state secrets but who may—in one way or another—discover and reveal them.

A well-oiled scheme

Amidst recent cases of ‘spymania’, the story of Svetlana Davydova, the mother of seven from a town near Smolensk, stands out. In January 2015, Davydova was arrested on charges of treason following a telephone call to the Ukrainian embassy in Moscow: she overheard an army officer discussing troop movements on the bus, and reported this information to the embassy. 

The investigation and trial proceedings earlier this year proceeded according to clearly developed plan. The security services’ ‘misfire’ in this case—the charges were dropped in March—revealed that a number of people charged with treason are in investigative detention, or are already serving time, without cause.

The details of Davydova’s case are well-known, so we can move on to the more revealing parts of this case. First, FSB officers needed almost a year to identify the grounds on which they could present charges to Davydova. Second, immediately after Davydova was arrested in January 2015, several media outlets reported that she had informed the Ukrainian consulate about the deployment of Russian soldiers not to the Donbas, but to a Russian region bordering Ukraine.

Nearly a year after that fatal telephone call, FSB officers arrived at Davydova’s home. They detained her, and searched her house. Shortly after, Davydova, together with her state-appointed attorney, was interrogated for the first time by an investigator, and then she was placed under arrest for a further two months. Another interrogation follows, during which Davydova confessed to all the charges presented. Andrei Stebenev, the state attorney, later stated that he would not appeal against the two-month arrest order, as further press attention might affect the accused’s children.

Filipp Kireev - Feb 2015 - RIAN_02566286.LR_.ru_.jpg

Svetlana Davydova upon release in March 2015. (c) Filipp Kireev/VisualRIAN.The cornerstone of this case, however, turned out to be the analysis of how ‘sensitive’ the information Davydova supposedly reported was.

‘In the beginning, specialists studied the information for hints as to how troops were moving from one region of Russia to another [emphasis added],’ says Ivan Pavlov, Davydova’s attorney and leader of Team 29, an organisation that has researched state secrets in Russia for more than a decade. ‘This information was recognised as a state secret. But then independent attorneys, who didn’t distort the evidence, got involved. It turned out that the telephone conversation concerned the deployment of troops onto Ukrainian territory [emphasis added]. This information was declared unreliable.’

The Davydova case was not fated to reach the courts—public outrage over the case, legal work, and the shocking revelations concerning Davydova’s living conditions inside the investigative detention facility made sure of this. A young mother of seven forced to express her breast milk in prison to avoid lactostasis—this turned out to be a certain existential border that even the FSB can’t cross. Forensic analysis showed the FSB’s evidence to be unreliable. The investigator approved the attorneys’ appeal to close the case, and Andrei Stebenev, Davydova’s state attorney, was disbarred.

The investigators at the FSB spent nearly a year collecting evidence, analysing forensic reports and selecting testimony to make sure Davydova didn’t have a chance. Somewhere, somehow, they made a mistake. Ivan Pavlov believes the fact that the charges were dropped is the result of a political decision. It remains unclear as to why Davydova’s conversation with the Ukrainian consulate was tampered with. We can only assume that interference from higher up saved Svetlana from prison. As the following cases show, it is very difficult to help someone accused of treason in Russia without ‘administrative interference’.

Best laid plans

According to Team 29, the security services usually work to a well-oiled plan when it comes to espionage cases. Aside from the role of the state attorney (who doesn’t always fulfill his duties to the best of his or her ability), we also need to pay attention to the number of signatures that bind the defendant to certain obligations.

Neither the Interior Ministry, nor the Investigative Committee have developed the practice of binding signatures as the FSB. Given that public resonance plays such an important role here, a signature obliging the signatory to keep details of the case to themselves deprives the defence of much need publicity. Meanwhile, the investigation and trial take place behind closed doors. Without publicity, chances of a just outcome drop to zero.

The case of Sergei Minakov, a sailor from Crimea, took a different turn. In January 2015, Minakov was accused of espionage, charged and arrested. He spent several months in the FSB’s Lefortovo investigation prison, and when Team 29 found out about the existence of this case, our legal personnel took the case on. They then informed the investigator of their involvement—by coincidence, the same investigator who had worked on the Davydova case.

Three days later, the Minakov case was closed, he’d left for his native Feodosiya on the Crimean coast, and didn’t respond to our calls much after. We’ll probably never know the real details of his case.

Why did this happen? Well, there’s a few suggestions. First, independent legal counsel disturbed the FSB’s usual scheme. Second, most espionage cases are ungrounded. There’s at least three cases that spring to mind: Gennady Kravtsov, former military intelligence officer, Evgeny Petrin, ex-employee of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Yuri Soloshenko, a Ukrainian citizen and former director of an arms factory in Poltava.

The first two, Kravtsov and Petrin, were accused of treason, the last, Soloshenko – espionage. Interestingly enough, prior to Team 29 taking an interest, Andrei Stebenev represented Petrin and Kravtsov—the same Stebenev who didn’t appeal against the arrest of Svetlana Davydova. It may just be a coincidence, but Kravtsov, just like Davydova, confessed immediately during his interrogation in the presence of Stebenev. Kravtsov, accused of committing state treachery by sending his CV to a Swiss company, later refuted this testimony.

Kravtsov worked as a radio engineer for 15 years in Russian military intelligence (GRU) before leaving in 2005. In 2010, he decided that his obligations to secrecy had finished, and went looking for employment in Switzerland. It’s hard to call this intention a serious one, or even one properly thought through—it was an emotional decision. Kravtsov was under severe stress: he couldn’t adapt to civilian life or civilian work. He wrote a short resume, translated it with Google and sent it off to Switzerland. Kravtsov was refused employment: the company only takes Swiss citizens.

This would hardly be grounds for a treason investigation, if not for another letter sent by the former radio engineer—this time to Belarus. Kravtsov found out that, at the Mozhaisky Military Space Academy in Saint Petersburg, there’s quite a few Belarusian citizens studying radio engineering. And so, Kravtsov sent a letter to the Belarusian Ministry of Defence, expressing hope that his skills might be of use.

Kravtsov’s case is a secret one, and all the information we have comes courtesy of Alla, Kravtsov’s wife. We can assume that Kravtsov’s letter to Belarus is what attracted the FSB. They didn’t detain Kravtsov straight away, only taking his computer (illegally; there was no court order). The FSB investigated this laptop for roughly a year, and only then, following several analyses and selection of witness testimony, Kravtsov was arrested in 2014.

Team 29 became involved in this case in spring 2015, by which time Kravtsov had spent almost a year in Lefortovo. The defence made more than 20 appeals against this case, including independent forensic analysis. All of these were declined.

For Pavlov, it was easier to work these cases 10 or 15 years ago. ‘The rights of the attorney have become very limited, as have the rights of the accused. My last case on state treason came to an end in 2003. Comparing then with now, it’s like day and night.’

Pavlov recalls the case of Grigory Pasko, the journalist and former navy officer who was accused of state treason in the late 1990s after reporting that the Russian navy was dumping nuclear waste in the Sea of Japan. Thanks to expert testimony, the judge declared the majority of the charges against Pasko irrelevant. But in Kravtsov’s case, expert testimony has not been permitted at the pre-trial investigation, nor at the actual trial itself. In September 2015, Kravtsov was sentenced to 14 years. The defence is now preparing its appeal.

‘There’s no punishment without crime’

The Petrin and Soloshenko cases are yet to get to trial, but, without going into details, there’s a few revealing moments here. First, Petrin’s legal team were denied access to the accused’s case file for six months. Second, in both cases, Petrin and Soloshenko could not get access to their legal counsel for long period of time. Ivan Pavlov and Evgeny Smirnov are yet to gain access to Soloshenko. Investigator Mikryukov has written to Pavlov and Smirnov to inform them of Soloshenko’s written refusal of their services—this is another violation of procedure by the investigators, as these documents should be completed in the presence of legal counsel.

Instead, Soloshenko is represented by state-appointed attorney Sergei Kisel. According to Ivan Pavlov, the practice of not allowing independent legal advisers access to cases where state secrets are involved goes back to the 1990s, but Russia’s Constitutional Court later put an end to it. Now there is reason to believe that this practice is back.

Pavlov believes that the main reason behind the jump in state treason cases is the conflict in south-eastern Ukraine, the rise of militaristic views in Russia and the search for internal enemies

Pavlov believes that the main reason behind the jump in state treason cases is the conflict in south-eastern Ukraine, the rise of militaristic views in Russia and the search for internal enemies. We can assume that, in connection with the current situation, the quota for spy cases has been quietly raised. ‘The “stick system” [doctoring cases and statistics to fit department quotas] has always existed: everyone’s career, from prison officers to judges, without even mentioning the investigators, depends on the number of cases investigated.’

It seems Russian citizens still follow the traditional moral of ‘there’s no punishment without a crime’. In March of this year, 48% of people surveyed by VTsIOM , a public survey organisation, declared that there were grounds to send Svetlana Davydova to a prison colony. These same people probably believe that Russia should be living under wartime regulations.

Today, an accusation of espionage or state treason is practically a guilty sentence. Until society’s attitudes to such cases become more cautious, finding justice in the courts will remain difficult.

Standfirst image: Sergei Savostyanov / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Get oDR emails Occasional updates from our team covering the post-Soviet space Sign up here


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData