Leonid Nikitinsky: When a secret of state becomes public knowledge

24 October 2020

Leonid Nikitinsky, Novaya gazeta columnist, member of the Presidential Council for Human Rights, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group’s Human Rights Award 

Source: Moscow Helsinki Group [original source: Новая газета]

A quote from the cult series His Excellency’s Adjutant goes like this:  “Pal Andreich, are you a spy?” (then, after an agonising silence): “What do you think Yura, is Vladimir Zenonich a good person?”

This is probably how the investigator Mikhail Stepanov imagined the phone call between Ivan Safronov and his mother on her birthday would go when he denied the defendant his latest request. Only under the influence of spy films could such a document be written:


Why an investigator didn’t allow Ivan Safronov to call his mother on her birthday

“It has been established that the telephone conversations provided by pre-trial detention facility No. 2 of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service with the specified person (his mother – ed. Novaya gazeta), being a witness in the criminal case, could be used by I. I. Safronov for the covert exchange of information and the execution of reconnaissance missions for foreign special services, acting against the security of the Russian Federation.”

The decision was brought to light by Safronov’s laywer Ivan Pavlov – maybe he also revealed some terrible “State secret of the investigation”?

State secrets concern “information protected by the state relating to the military, foreign policy, intelligence, counter-intelligence activities…” The Presidential Decree of November 30, 1995 “On the Approval of the List of Information Considered to be State Secrets”, with its numerous amendments and additions, is very general in nature. Specific information is recorded in another list, which is also classified.

We know that Ivan Safronov, who as a journalist specialised in military matters and, later, as an assistant to the Roscosmos management, could independently obtain information from open sources which might be included in the specific list. But, without a special permit, he would not have been able to determine whether they related to a protected state secret. This would mean, then, that the secret was poorly protected, and he is not responsible. What matters is that secrets kept in one’s head do not constitute a crime, but only the fact of their disclosure, which could “harm the state.” The crime implies intent, so Safronov would have to have understood that he was disclosing just such information.

In any case, contemporary secrets have a strong technological component – this is about the investigator’s concern that Safronov could divulge information to his mother. We know that Ivan’s father was an officer with a professional specialisation related to missiles, and, like his son, became a military journalist – perhaps he сould have guessed something from him, only he died in 2007 in unexplained circumstances. Ivan’s mother, as she has allowed us to disclose, is a schoolteacher with 40 years’ experience. But even if she were an atomic scientist, it’s hard to imagine what technological secrets her son could have managed to divulge to her in a short telephone call from Lefortovo whilst under guard.

Another question is how could Safronov’s mother be a witness in her son’s case? Perhaps he stole some jars of jam when he was sixteen? Maybe this was the secret he intended to disclose to her under the guise of congratulations? And then why not include all of Ivan’s acquaintances as witnesses and make them sign non-disclosure agreements for state investigations and secrets, just in case?

In such a situation, where neither Ivan nor his lawyers can understand what exactly he’s being accused of, it is by and large a competition between two values; the rights of citizens and state secrets. In relation to this, it’s written in the second chapter of the Russian Federation’s Constitution that “man’s rights and freedoms are the highest values.” No secret, regardless of how secret it is, can be guarded at the expense of the violation of the rights of the accused. Further in the same chapter of the Constitution it’s written that “the recognition, observance and defence of the rights and freedoms of people and of citizens is the responsibility of the state.”

So is the FSB, which is conducting this investigation, representing not the Russian Federation, but some other state? A state within a state, where such fantasies are considered the norm? Or is this mockery of the Constitution and human morals? If this is the “secret of the investigation”, then alas, it’s already no secret at all.


Ivan Pavlov, lawyer, head of Team 29, and laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group Prize for human rights defence

“A call from a pre-trial detention centre is a call under strict control” -Safronov’s lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, on the reasons for the refusing to allow Ivan Safronov a phone call with his mother.

The significance lies in those motives that the investigator advanced as the basis for the refusal. And this lies not in the realm of jurisprudence and legality; it lies in the realm of morality and ethics. It is from these positions that one must evaluate his refusal. The investigator’s motives are dependent on the kind of attitudinal values he has. Education, how his parents raised him, how, in the end, his teachers, and those who surround him now, have brought him up.

It is that atmosphere which I wanted to demonstrate by making public this fragment of the ruling. Whom we are facing, who is a vivid representation of those procedural opponents, with whom we work…. And what’s in their heads! We so often have to deal with this, but usually these are things that are spoken. And here everything is written down.

More often than not, those accused of treason are forbidden to have phone calls with their relatives. This is because the investigation can put psychological pressure on a person this way, and keep them in complete isolation from others. In order to make them more amenable, in order to persuade them to tesitfy, and then things will get a bit easier. This is, of course, illegal, but they do it.

If you work on an assumption of good faith and common sense, then a call with your mother from a pre-trial detention centre is not just like the usual phone call to your mother – you went out so you give her a call, no one will listen to what you’re saying. A phone call from a pre-trial detention centre is a call under strict control. It is the call of a person who is directly visible and audible to the authorities who are watching and listening.

Translated by Verity Hemp, Cameron Evans and Mercedes Malcomson

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