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Treason, Espionage Cases Rise in Russia07/15 06:10


   TALLINN, Estonia (AP) -- When Maksim Kolker's phone rang at 6 a.m., and the 
voice on the other end said his father had been arrested, he thought it was a 
scam to extort money. A day earlier, he had taken his father, prominent Russian 
physicist Dmitry Kolker, to the hospital in his native Novosibirsk, when his 
advanced pancreatic cancer had suddenly worsened.

   The phone kept ringing and Kolker kept hanging up until finally his father 
called to confirm the grim news. The elder Kolker had been charged with 
treason, the family later learned, a crime that is probed and prosecuted in 
absolute secrecy in Russia and punished with long prison terms.

   Treason cases have been rare in Russia in the last 30 years, with a handful 
annually. But since the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, they have skyrocketed, along 
with espionage prosecutions, ensnaring citizens and foreigners alike, 
regardless of their politics.

   That has brought comparisons to the show trials under Soviet dictator Josef 
Stalin in the 1930s.

   The more recent victims range from Kremlin critics and independent 
journalists to veteran scientists working with countries that Moscow considers 

   These cases stand out from the crackdown on dissent that has reached 
unprecedented levels under President Vladimir Putin. They are investigated 
almost exclusively by the powerful Federal Security Service, or FSB, with 
specific charges and evidence not always revealed.

   The accused are often held in strict isolation in Moscow's notorious 
Lefortovo Prison, tried behind closed doors, and almost always convicted, with 
long prison sentences.

   In 2022, Putin urged the security services to "harshly suppress the actions 
of foreign intelligence services, promptly identify traitors, spies and 

   The First Department, a rights group that specializes in such prosecutions 
and takes its name from a division of the security service, counted over 100 
known treason cases in 2023, lawyer Evgeny Smirnov told The Associated Press. 
He added there probably were another 100 that nobody knows about.

   The longer the war goes on, "the more traitors" the authorities want to 
round up, Smirnov said.

   Treason cases began growing after 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea 
from Ukraine, threw its weight behind a separatist insurgency in the eastern 
part of the country and fell out with the West for the first time since the 
Cold War.

   Two years earlier, the legal definition of treason was expanded to include 
providing vaguely defined "assistance" to foreign countries or organizations, 
effectively exposing to prosecution anyone in contact with foreigners.

   The move followed mass anti-government protests in 2011-12 in Moscow that 
officials claimed were instigated by the West. Those changes to the law were 
heavily criticized by rights advocates, including those in the Presidential 
Human Rights Council.

   Faced with that criticism at the time, Putin promised to look into the 
amended law and agreed "there shouldn't be any broad interpretation of what 
high treason is."

   And yet, that's exactly what began happening.

   In 2015, authorities arrested Svetlana Davydova, a mother of seven in the 
western region of Smolensk, on treason charges in accordance with the new, 
expanded definition of the offense.

   She was charged over contacting the Ukrainian Embassy in Moscow in 2014 to 
warn officials there that she thought Russia was sending troops into eastern 
Ukraine, where the separatist insurgency against Kyiv was unfolding.

   The case drew national attention and public outrage. Russia at the time 
denied its troops were involved in eastern Ukraine, and many pointed out that 
the case against Davydova contradicted that narrative. The charges against her 
were eventually dropped.

   That outcome was a rare exception to the multiplying treason and espionage 
cases in subsequent years that consistently ended in convictions and prison 

   Paul Whelan, a United States corporate security executive who traveled to 
Moscow to attend a wedding, was arrested in 2018 and convicted of espionage two 
years later, and sentenced to 16 years in prison. He denied the charges.

   Ivan Safronov, an adviser to the Roscosmos space agency and a former 
military affairs journalist, was convicted of treason in 2022 and sentenced to 
22 years in prison. His prosecution was widely seen as retaliation for his 
reporting exposing military incidents and shady arms deals.

   "It's a very good cautionary tale case for them that journalists shouldn't 
write anything about the defense sector," his fiancee and fellow reporter 
Ksenia Mironova told AP.

   The FSB also went after scientists who study aerodynamics, hypersonics and 
other fields that could be used in weapons development.

   Such arrests swelled after 2018, when Putin in his annual 
state-of-the-nation address touted new and unique hypersonic weapons that 
Russia was developing, according to Smirnov, the lawyer.

   In his view, it was the security services' way of showing the Kremlin that 
Russian scientific advances, especially those used to develop weapons, are so 
valuable that "all foreign intelligence services in the world are after it."

   He stressed that all the arrested scientists were civilians, and that "they 
practically never go after military scientists."

   Many of the scientists denied the charges. Their families and colleagues 
insisted they were implicated over something as benign as giving lectures 
abroad or working with foreign scientists on joint projects.

   Kolker, the son of the detained Novosibirsk physicist, said that when the 
FSB searched his father's apartment, they looked for several presentations he 
had used in lectures given in China.

   The elder Kolker, who had studied light waves, gave presentations that were 
cleared for use abroad and also were given inside Russia, and "any student 
could understand that he wasn't revealing anything (secret) in them," Maksim 
Kolker said.

   Nevertheless, FSB officers yanked the 54-year-old physicist from his 
hospital bed in 2022 and flew him to Moscow, to the Lefortovo Prison, his son 

   The ailing scientist called his family from the plane to say goodbye, 
knowing he was unlikely to survive prison, the son said. Within days, the 
family received a telegram informing them he had died in a hospital.

   Other cases were similar. Valery Golubkin, a 71-year-old Moscow physicist 
specializing in aerodynamics, was convicted of treason in 2023. His state-run 
research institute was working on an international project of a hypersonic 
civilian aircraft, and he was asked by his employer to help with reports on the 

   Smirnov of the First Department group, which was involved in his defense, 
says the reports were vetted before they were sent abroad and didn't contain 
state secrets.

   Golubkin's daughter, Lyudmila, said the 2021 arrest came as a shock.

   "He is not guilty of anything," she said. His 12-year sentence was upheld 
despite appeals, and his family now hopes he will be released on parole.

   Other scientists working on hypersonics, a field with important applications 
for missile development, also were arrested on treason charges in recent years. 
One of them, Anatoly Maslov, 77, was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in 
prison in May.

   The Institute of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics in Novosibirsk wrote a 
letter supporting Maslov and two other physicists implicated over "making 
presentations at international seminars and conferences, publishing articles in 
highly rated journals (and) participation in international scientific 
projects." Such activities, the letter said, are "an obligatory component of 
conscientious and high-quality scientific activity," both in Russia and 

   Two other recent high-profile cases involved a prominent opposition 
politician and a journalist.

   Vladimir Kara-Murza, a journalist who became an activist, was charged with 
treason in 2022 after giving speeches in the West that were critical of Russia. 
After surviving what he believed were attempts to poison him in 2015 and 2017, 
Kara-Murza was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison, where his family 
fears for his deteriorating health.

   In his closing statement at trial, Kara-Murza alluded to the USSR's dark 
legacy of prosecutions, saying the country has gone "all the way back to the 

   The Wall Street Journal's Evan Gershkovich was arrested in 2023 on espionage 
charges, the first American reporter detained on such charges since the Cold 
War. Gershkovich, who went on trial in June, denies the charges, and the U.S. 
government has declared him to be wrongfully detained.

   Russians reportedly have been charged with treason -- or the less-severe 
charges of "preparing for treason" -- for acts including donating money to 
Ukrainian charities or groups fighting alongside Kyiv's forces, setting 
military enlistment offices in Russia on fire, and even private phone 
conversations with friends in Ukraine about moving there.

   Ksenia Khavana, 33, was arrested in Yekaterinburg in February on treason 
charges, accused of collecting money for Ukraine's military. The dual 
Russian-U.S. citizen had returned from Los Angeles to visit family, and the 
First Department said the charges stem from a $51 donation to a U.S.-based 
charity that helps Ukraine.

   Several factors are motivating authorities to pursue more treason cases, 
experts say.

   One is that it sends a clear message that the unwritten rules have changed, 
and that conferences abroad or work with foreign peers is no longer something 
scientists should do, says Andrei Soldatov, an investigative journalist and 
expert on the security services.

   It's also easier to get higher authorities to allocate resources to a 
treason case, like surveillance or wiretaps, he says.

   According to Smirnov, the spike in prosecutions came after the FSB allowed 
its regional branches in 2022 to pursue certain kinds of treason, and officials 
in those branches sought to curry favor with their superiors to advance their 

   Above all, Soldatov said, is the FSB's genuine and widespread belief of "the 
fragility of the regime" at a time of a political turmoil -- either from mass 
protests, as in 2011-12, or now during the war with Ukraine.

   "They sincerely believe that it can break," he said, even if it's really not 
the case.

   Mironova, the fiancee of the imprisoned journalist Safronov, echoed that 

   FSB investigators think they're catching "traitors" and "enemies of the 
motherland," even when they know they don't have evidence against them, she 

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