APS News

APS Impacts Prisoner Release

By Michael Lucibella

An important but under-reported aspect of the dramatic prisoner transfer between the United States and Russia in early July is the plight of Igor Sutyagin, an arms control researcher from Moscow. First imprisoned over a decade ago by the Russian security forces on trumped-up espionage charges, Sutyagin had been the focus of an international effort to protect the human rights of scientists across the globe. The APS Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists (CIFS) has been trying to free him since his arrest in 1999.

The fight for human rights of scientists is a cause as old as Galileo. In repressive societies around the world even today, scientists face intimidation and imprisonment because of their political views or research focus. CIFS is marking its thirtieth anniversary this year. Notwithstanding the high profile circumstances surrounding Sutyagin’s release, his case in many ways exemplifies the kind of work that CIFS does to protect the welfare of scientists.

“This is probably a little more dramatic, but in many ways it’s typical in that things sometimes take forever,” said Michelle Irwin, the international programs administrator for APS.

Despite being a part of the so-called “spy swap” with Russia, Sutyagin was no secret agent. With a background in physics, Sutyagin researched Russian military technology and policy and worked for the prestigious USA and Canada Institute. In 1999 Russian security forces arrested him in Moscow and charged him with colluding with foreign powers. Sutyagin had done work for a British “think tank” that the Russian security forces claimed had ties with foreign intelligence agencies.

Pavel Podvig of Stanford University, a close friend of Sutyagin’s and co-author of one of his books, has been working for years to secure a pardon for his imprisoned colleague.

“To everyone it was clear that there was no substance to the charges,” Podvig said. “He was accused of transferring classified information to certain companies, but he never had access to anything classified. The FSB (successor organization to the KGB) never even tried to show that he may have had access to classified data or anything like that. The FSB just kind of asserted that this company had these intelligence connections, but never provided evidence he had any kind of knowledge of this.”

The book that Podvig wrote with Sutyagin was used as evidence in the trial that the FSB claimed showed Sutyagin had access to classified information. Podvig insists that the book cited only freely available sources and that the real aim of the FSB was to intimidate academics from collaborating with foreigners. At the time of the arrest, a number of other Russian academics were similarly intimidated and imprisoned for having connections to foreign nationals.

The judge presiding over Sutyagin’s first trial dismissed the case, finding the charges against him too vague. The FSB, then brought the case back to trial for a second round. The judge and jury that were first selected were dismissed without explanation, and replaced by a judge with a history of ruling in favor of the FSB.

This time there was no jury, and the judge refused to let Sutyagin’s lawyers enter evidence that showed he had only accessed publicly available information. Sutyagin was found guilty of espionage against the Russian government in 2004 and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. He has spent the intervening time in a Russian prison near the site of some of Stalin’s old gulags deep in Siberia.

The US Department of State condemned the trial at the time for its “lack of transparency and due process” and subsequently listed Sutyagin as a political prisoner. Amnesty International, the Committee of Concerned Scientists, the New York Academy of Science Human Rights Committee, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Committee on Scientific Freedom have all called for his release.

CIFS likewise has been involved since his initial arrest. The committee first wrote to local Russian prosecutors and governors demanding a fair trial. As the case finished working its way through the contorted Russian legal system, the committee wrote to then Russian President Vladimir Putin requesting a pardon. In addition, the committee has written to the Russian ambassador to the US every year bringing the issue to his attention.

Though Sutyagin’s imprisonment is over, people who have worked on his case say that it is a bittersweet victory. Because he was a part of the so-called “spy swap” he has essentially been branded as a spy. In addition, in order to secure the pardon that ultimately released him, Sutyagin was compelled to sign an admission of guilt, something he’d steadfastly refused to do. He was reportedly told that if he refused to sign, he would scuttle the entire deal, and the three other prisoners in the swap would remain behind bars.

“Certainly I think that it’s a good thing that he’s out of jail. That’s certainly good. The circumstances may not be ideal.” Podvig said, adding that his participation in the swap does not amount to an admission of guilt.

Irwin reflected Podvig’s sentiments, saying “Even though we’re  glad he’s out, the way it happened was not optimal,”

CIFS will continue to stay in touch with Sutyagin and his family. It is unclear whether he plans to return to Russia with his family. With the pardon there should be no legal recourse for Russia to block his return, but there is no way to tell if he would be able to continue his research should he go back.

At the same time, CIFS will continue to work on other human rights cases both in Russia and throughout the world. Another high profile case in Russia is that of Valentin Danilov, who is currently serving a 13-year sentence for allegedly transferring weapon secrets to the Chinese. Like Sutyagin, there’s no evidence that any of the data Danilov supposedly transferred was classified, or that he ever had access to any classified data. The State Department considers Danilov a political prisoner as he was first arrested around the same time as Sutyagin, a time when the Russian security forces were cracking down on scientists with any foreign connections.

“Our mission is really to monitor the freedom of scientists in the world to travel and do their science,” said committee chair, Noemi Mirkin, “We feel you can’t put borders in science; science is international.”

Mirkin has seen the repression of scientists up close. She and her husband José were residents of Argentina when the government was toppled by a military coup in 1976. An unknown number of scientists, including her husband, disappeared into the country’s prisons under the repressive regime. APS, working at the time through an arm of its Panel on Public Affairs, convinced the State Department to send a representative to Argentina to secure the release of the imprisoned scientists.

CIFS has recently been actively involved in securing the right to travel for seven students in the Gaza Strip who received Fulbright scholarships. A 2007 Israeli embargo prevented them from traveling to their universities. They had initially been issued visas to study abroad, but these were revoked after the embargo was imposed. CIFS partnered with the State Department and several other international rights organizations to allow them to study abroad in 2008. At present CIFS is working to ensure the same rights to the hundreds of students throughout the Gaza Strip who have received other scholarships. 

Gray arrow Committee on the International Freedom of Scientists

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Editor: Alan Chodos