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Russian Whistle Blower Acquitted

September 13, 2000 GMT

MOSCOW (AP) _ To the relief of environmental and human rights activists, Russia’s Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld the acquittal of an ex-navy officer accused of espionage for revealing the perils of decaying nuclear submarines.

The decision finally closed a case that had drawn international criticism as it dragged on for four years. Alexander Nikitin’s cause was championed by environmental and other activists who accused the government of Soviet-style persecution.

``Today I am very happy,″ Nikitin told reporters after Wednesday’s court ruling. ``What happened is a triumph of law and justice.″

Nikitin was arrested in 1996 for preparing a report on decaying nuclear warships for the Norwegian environmental group Bellona. The report described 52 Cold War-era submarines in a remote shipyard near Russia’s border with Norway whose spent nuclear fuel could have leaked or exploded.

Russia’s main intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service, accused Nikitin of sharing secret information with foreigners and he was jailed for nearly a year.

Supporters in Russia and abroad denounced the case as an attempt to intimidate environmental groups and set back freedom of speech.

A St. Petersburg court acquitted Nikitin in December, throwing out the espionage charges. The court ruled the information was not classified as secret at the time.

The Supreme Court upheld that ruling in April. But the Prosecutor General’s office appealed, saying further investigation was needed. On Wednesday, the Presidium of the Supreme Court _ the court’s highest body _ rejected the prosecutor’s appeal, closing the case.

``Some people still remain in this country ... who are living in the past,″ Nikitin said. ``And these people resisted until the end. Today, a final line has been drawn.″

Amnesty International praised Wednesday’s ruling, but warned that it doesn’t mean rights are secure in Russia.

``We are delighted that Alexander Nikitin’s long ordeal is finally at an end _ an ordeal he should never have had to undergo in the first place,″ the executive director of Amnesty USA, William F. Schulz, said in a statement. ``This decision should send a strong signal to President (Vladimir) Putin to urgently address the deteriorating human rights situation in Russia.″

Putin headed the Federal Security Service during much of the Nikitin case, but made little comment publicly except to say Nikitin was guilty. Putin has also said that ecological groups were providing cover for foreign spies.

But Putin has denied any crackdown on dissent, and some human rights activists say things are no worse under him than they were under Boris Yeltsin, who was president when Nikitin was arrested.