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By coincidence, two important human-rights cases were settled on the same day, many thousands of miles apart. On September 13 in Moscow, the Presidium of the Russian Supreme Court dismissed the appeal of the prosecution in the case of Aleksandr Nikitin, thereby ending all attempts to jail him on charges of high treason. Later that day in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Judge James A. Parker set free Wen Ho Lee, the Los Alamos scientist who had been held without bail for nine months awaiting trial for allegedly mishandling nuclear secrets.
Someone not familiar with the details of these cases, especially someone in this country, might assume that the American system would be inherently superior to the Russian in dispensing justice and in protecting the rights of the accused. After all we have a proud tradition of more than two centuries of freedom and democracy, whereas Russia, heir to the oppressive Soviet system and before that the tyranny of the Czars, is only now emerging as a struggling democracy plagued by an unstable economy in which chaos and corruption abound.
So it is enlightening to examine the circumstances of these two cases, and to discover an interesting degree of similarity between them. Of course neither case reflects well on the government involved: Nikitin is an environmental activist primarily concerned with the nuclear waste generated by Russia's northern fleet, and the governmental response to his activities was to charge him with high treason. He spent 10 months in prison in 1996, and as the case dragged on for five years, even after his release he was the subject of harassment and persecution. The international scientific community, among others, engaged in public and private agitation on Nikitin's behalf. For example, Jerome I. Friedman, then President of the APS, wrote an open letter in November of 1999 in support of Nikitin, about a month before he was acquitted of the treason charge in St. Petersburg Municipal Court. It was this acquittal that was upheld on appeal in April 17 of this year, and again on September 13.
The Wen Ho Lee affair was shorter, but more intense. Fired from his long-term position at Los Alamos by Energy Secretary Richardson in March of 1999, amid allegations that someone there had leaked nuclear secrets to the Chinese (Lee himself is a naturalized American born in Taiwan), Lee was arrested in December 1999 and indicted on 59 counts of mishandling nuclear secrets. He spent the next 278 days either in solitary confinement or in shackles when transported out of his cell. Initially he was forbidden unsupervised meetings with members of his family, and forbidden to speak with them in Chinese. Although he was never charged with espionage, the government treated him as a severe threat to national security, and argued successfully against the granting of bail. Protests against the conditions of his incarceration were widespread both outside the scientific community and within it, including a letter written by APS President James S. Langer to Attorney General Janet Reno in February. In late summer the weakness of the government's case became increasingly apparent, and Lee's lawyers negotiated a settlement in which he pled guilty to only one charge in return for a sentence of time already served. In freeing him, Judge Parker said that the actions of certain government officials "have embarrassed our entire nation and each of us who is a citizen of it."
One important lesson of these affairs is that even in a nation of laws like ours in which freedom and democracy are cherished principles, there are forces at work willing to use slogans like "national security" to trample on basic human rights, and they are never very far from getting away with it. We succumb at our peril to the fiction that this can happen only in other countries.
The consequences of the Wen Ho Lee affair promise to be long-lasting and severe. Several of the news media have reported on the damage done specifically to Los Alamos as a scientific institution, and more generally to the broader community of scientists, many of whom are Asians or Asian-Americans who in the future will be less inclined to choose science as a career or less inclined to pursue their careers in the United States. The true threat to our national security and well being is much more likely to come from a loss of scientific competitiveness than from a loss of nuclear secrets to the Chinese or anybody else.
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