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Russian woman accused of treason for phoning Ukrainian embassy

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A mother of seven is facing charges of treason in the Russian town of Vyazma. Her alleged crime? Phoning the Ukrainian embassy to warn about Russian troop movements.

Grigory Tumanov Daniel Kennedy
30 January 2015

On the morning of 21 January, Svetlana Davydova and her husband Anatoly Gorlov received a knock on the door of their flat in the town of Vyаzma, Smolensk Region. Opening the door, Anatoly discovered the unexpected visitor was Colonel Mikhail Svinolup, from the investigative section of Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB). The Colonel announced to Davydova that she was being detained under Article 275 of the Russian criminal code - state treason. If convicted, she faces 12 to 20 years in prison.

If convicted Davydova faces 12 to 20 years in prison.

The authorities took Davydova away and began searching her flat. Within a few hours, they had removed all the family's notebooks as well as their laptop and computer. Though she was the mother of seven children, including a 2-month-old infant, Davydova was sent to Moscow's infamous Lefortovo prison where she is currently being held on remand. Davydova is an avowed pacifist and anti-militarist, and had previously been active in these movements. She was also previously a member of Russia's Communist Party, but had left in order to raise her family. 

The telephone game

The FSB maintains that in April 2014, following Russia's annexation of Crimea, and while the situation in Ukraine's eastern regions was escalating from a series of civil disturbances to a full-fledged armed conflict, Davydova noticed that the military unit stationed near her apartment building had practically cleared out of its lodgings. She then took a bus to the city centre and recognised one of her fellow passengers as a member of this detatchment. Anatoly Gorlov told the Russian newspaper Kommersant that the man was talking loudly on his phone and said 'They're sending us to Moscow in small groups, in our uniforms, and from then, onwards on a "business trip."' 

The Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow, where Davydova is accused of revealing state secrets. CC Lyova Anastasiya

They're sending us to Moscow in small groups, in our uniforms, and from then onwards on a "business trip."'

After discussing what she had heard on the bus with her husband, Davydova decided to call the Ukainian embassy in Moscow to warn them. Although she failed to get through to any of the diplomatic corps, staff told her they would pass her information on to the Ukrainian authorities. 

'Because she was opposed to war with Ukraine, she passed on information she considered important to the Ukrainian embassy,' Gorlov explained in an interview with Kommersant FM, 'But more to the point, Russian forces there are officially not fighting, and because of this, in principle, Svetlana can't pass on anything secret.'

The case against Davydova

Article 275 is a rarely invoked law in Russia. 'There are hardly 10 investigations a year,' says Ivan Pavlov, a lawyer with the Institute for the Development of the Freedom of Information. 'They're all closed sessions, poorly publicised, and secret. Usually those accused of this crime are either FSB agents or members of the military.'

The law itself is extremely vague about what constitutes treason. Under the current legislation, treason is defined as 'the carrying out of espionage by a citizen of the Russian Federation, the transmission to a foreign state or an international or foreign organisation or its representatives, reports containing state secrets that have been entrusted to an individual or have become known to him through [military or civil] service, work, study or by other means.' An amendment to the law made in 2012 also criminalises support for governments or foreign organisations engaged in activities 'directed against national security.' Davydova is being charged based on an interpretation of this amendment. 

Pavlov notes that proving an activity was actually treasonable or caused actual harm is difficult. ‘How does one define if there has been damage to our national security? It’s all subjective. Every time, an expert opinion needs to be called in to figure out what kind of activity took place, was there harm, what sort of harm was there, and so on.'

'The Davydova case is undoubtedly a political signal.'

The case against Davydova is likely to set a precedent. Traditionally, cases against private citizens with no connection to the security services are rare, and Davydova is the first to be tried under the 2012 amendment. 'The Davydova case is undoubtedly a political signal,' says Pavlov, 'they simply found an incredibly vulnerably person, and threw the Ukraine issue into the case (which has been a particularly hot topic the last few months). It's pure politics.'

Pavlov notes that any effective defence for Davydova will have to rely on challenging the way the evidence against her was obtained. 'Obviously they were wiretapping the embassy. This would require a court order. If this hadn't been granted then the evidence of the FSB should not be allowed. Obviously, the surveillance of diplomats in any country is an unofficial undertaking but when concrete facts are uncovered, there can be a serious scandal.' 

At this moment, Svetlana Davydova is being held on remand in Lefortovo prison in Moscow.

Standfirst image: (c) Shutterstock/E.M. Karuna

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