The Federal Security Service (FSB) of the Russian Federation have charged a prominent Russian scientist with treason after accusing him of passing state secrets to China, his lawyer said on Monday, saying his client could serve up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.
Valery Mitko, president of the Arctic Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, has been under house arrest since authorities charged him with high treason in February.
The FSB believes that the 78-year-old Arctic specialist was selling classified information pertaining to methods used to detect submarines to Chinese intelligence agencies.
However, Ivan Pavlov, his lawyer, said that Mitko travelled to China twice a year to speak as a guest lecturer and denied handing state secrets to the Chinese authorities.
“Mitko did travel to China with documents for his lectures, but these contained academic and open source information only”, Pavlov said.
“There were no state secrets in there at all. We consider these accusations to be absurd,” Pavlov said, saying he hoped the case would be dismissed before trial.
Usually, people suspected of high treason are sent to jail, but in Mitko’s situation, the FSB did not do this. The scientist’s wife, Tatyana, suggests that the court imposed a milder preventive measure due to the coronavirus pandemic and the noise surrounding the arrest of another elderly scientist, 76-year-old Viktor Kudryavtsev, who was suspected in 2018 of transmitting classified information to the Belgian institute.
In September 2019, Kudryavtsev, categorically denying guilt, was released from jail on his own recognizance – but only after the scientist was diagnosed with cancer.
According to the FSB’s investigation, Mitko has been cooperating with the Chinese special services “out of self-interest”. It further claims that the scientist allegedly agreed to collect information that is a state secret “of a military nature”.
In particular, the FSB’s investigation says, Chinese agents asked Mitko to collect data on methods of detecting submarines – and the scientist allegedly agreed in exchange for a material reward.
The FSB believes that Mitko collected this information for exactly a year – using his own experience of serving in the Navy and “other sources”, and on March 24, 2018, he took it out and handed it over to the Chinese special services – supposedly knowing that it was acting to the detriment of Russia’s security.
Mitko’s lawyer, Pavlov, on the other hand, says that Mitko really flew to China to give regular lectures at the University of Dalian.
“At the airport, the FSB’s secretly opened the scientist’s baggage, photographed the papers folded there and resealed”, he said referring to the case file.
Pavlov believes that before that, Mitko has been watched for several years – precisely because of his contacts with colleagues from other countries.
The FSB officers sent the documents photographed in Mitko’s baggage for examination, and one of them was recognized as state secret.
The documents, Pavlov said, really dealt with the characteristics of various submarines, including methods for detecting them.
“We only know the name of this document, but now it is at the side of the investigation as the investigator refuses to provide it to us. Valery says that he took all the information from open sources and does not exactly remember the contents of the document. Now our task is to restore it, if only from memory, and show, digit by digit, that there is nothing secret in it”, he added.
A number of Russian scientists have been arrested and charged with treason in recent years for allegedly handing sensitive material to foreigners. Critics of the Russian government have said these arrests stem from unfounded paranoia.