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Russia23 January 2003

Release of journalist Grigory Pasko

One of Pasko’s lawyers, Jon Gauslaa (of the Norwegian ecology organisation Bellona), said the Ussuriysk prosecutor and the administrators of the prison camp where he is being held were against freeing him for good conduct. The local prosecutor’s office has until 30 January to appeal against his release, but a spokesman for the Moscow prosecutor said there was no reason to contest it. Pasko is expected to go to Moscow next week and continue his fight for to legally clear his name.

(JPEG) Reporters Without Borders welcomed a court’s decision today to release Grigory Pasko, a journalist with the environmentalist magazine Ekologiya i pravo and former correspondent for the military newspaper Boevaya Vakhta. The court in the far-eastern city of Ussuriisk gave Pasko remission for good conduct, to which all prisoners are entitled on completion of two thirds of their sentence. His conditional release was expected to take place in a matter of hours, after which he would be on probation for 16 months. It comes just six weeks after he was awarded the 2002 Reporters Without Borders - France Foundation prize for his contribution to the fight against censorship.

Pasko first spent a total of 20 months in prison between 1997 and 1999 prior to conviction. He was sentenced to four years imprisonment in 2001, and was then detained again for denouncing the Russian fleet’s dumping of radioactive waste in the Sea of Japan.

"Grigory Pasko’s release is the first good news about press freedom to have come from Russia in a long time," Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Robert Ménard said. "The nuclear pollution caused by the Russian military fleet was much too serious an issue for Moscow to let the news media get too interested," Ménard said. "Rather than deal with the ecological threat that is worrying Russia’s neighbours, they wanted above all to silence the press. Pasko’s imprisonment was a warning for all journalists who dare to criticise the military or government", he added.

Convicted of "espionage" and "high treason" Pasko conducted lengthy investigations and wrote hundreds of articles about the pollution resulting from the virtual abandonment of the Russian military’s nuclear submarines with the complicity of the FSB (the former KGB). He also circulated video footage of liquid radioactive waste being dumped in the Sea of Japan by the Russian fleet.

Filmed while he was Boevaya Vakhta’s correspondent, this footage was broadcast by the Japanese television network NHK, eliciting heated international reaction. Accused of "espionage" and "high treason" by the FSB, he was convicted by the Vladivostok military court in 2001. The supreme court in Moscow confirmed a four-year prison sentence in June 2002.

Pasko’s conditions of detention were harsh. From December 2001 to September 2002, he was held in the Vladivostok detention centre in an cold, isolated cell with no light or electricity, where he fell ill. On 10 September, he was transferred to a prison camp where he worked in a carpentry workshop. He continued to write clandestinely for Ekologiya i pravo and helped fellow inmates prepare their legal defence. His wife was allowed to telephone him and visit him only once every three months.

Pasko was one of some 116 journalists currently imprisoned worldwide just for wanting to practise their profession. He was sponsored by many international news organisations under the programme begun by Reporters Without Borders. They include M6, LCI, Le Nouvel Observateur, France Soir, RFI, Radio Classique, France Culture, Phosphore, Le Télégramme de Brest et de l’Ouest, Le Club de la Presse du Limousin, Essex Chronicle, Le Courrier, RTBF - Fréquence Wallonie and the Maison de la Presse of Mons. His wife Galina Morozova received the Reporters Without Borders - France Foundation award on his behalf on 10 December. The award was supported by the EDF Foundation.

Putin gets tough with news media The supreme court’s decision upholding Pasko’s prison sentence came at a time when President Vladimir Putin was asserting control over the news media. Following the hostage-taking at a Moscow theatre, the Duma adopted an amendment to the anti-terrorist law that imposed considerable restrictions on press freedom and foreshadowed an increase in the censorship that has already limited coverage of the war in Chechnya for many years. Under international pressure, President Putin finally vetoed the amendment and asked legislators to redraft it.

Several Russian news media have been sanctioned for their coverage of the hostage-taking in Moscow, and the Russian authorities have also criticised the foreign press for their coverage of the war in Chechnya and the "anti-terrorist operations."

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