A former Russian intelligence agent who attempted to investigate possible government involvement in a series of deadly apartment bombings was sentenced Wednesday to four years in prison on a charge of revealing state secrets.
A Moscow military court also found Mikhail Trepashkin, who was arrested in October, a week before he was to have unveiled his findings in a public courtroom, guilty on an unrelated weapons charge. Human rights groups said the case was an attempt to silence one of the voices of doubt in Russia's campaign against terrorism.
"The sentencing of Mikhail Trepashkin today proved that we have entered a period of political repressions in Russia once again. Trepashkin is a political prisoner, beyond any doubt," said Lev A. Ponomaryov, director of the All-Russian Movement for Human Rights.
Trepashkin, a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB and its successor agency, the FSB, was a private investigator for a parliament commission that two years ago set out to investigate a series of four bombings at apartment buildings across Russia in 1999. The attacks, which killed 243 people, were blamed on Chechen separatists and helped rally opinion around Russia's decision to launch a second war in the breakaway republic later that year.
The commission looked into lingering suspicions that the FSB might have had a hand in the bombings, triggered in part by reports that unknown persons had been seen unloading a white powdery substance later found in the basement of a fifth apartment building, in the western Russian city of Ryazan. FSB officials later acknowledged that their own agents had placed the material but said that it was sugar and that it was only a drill.
One of Trepashkin's lawyers, Nikolai Gorokhov, said that the investigator -- who had been forced out of his FSB job in 1997 in a dispute over another investigation -- recognized a composite drawing of a man who rented the basement space used in one of the explosions. He believed the drawing depicted former FSB agent Vladimir Romanovich; two other witnesses, including a Moscow organized crime officer, supported the claim.
Shortly after Trepashkin made public his assertions about the drawing, it disappeared and a new composite sketch was distributed, Gorokhov said.
Romanovich was killed in a car accident in Cyprus a few months after the apartment bombings. Two of the four parliament deputies who launched the apartment bombing investigation also are dead -- one shot to death outside his home last spring, another the victim of a sudden and unidentified food allergy in July 2003.
Two Chechen men were convicted of involvement in the bombings in January and sentenced to life imprisonment. The men admitted some role in transporting the explosives, and one, Adam Dekkushev, said he was a member of the rebel group that prosecutors linked to the bombings but said he had been a victim of "religious propaganda."
The FSB has repeatedly denied any role in the bombings, and President Vladimir V. Putin has denounced any attempts to lay blame on the government.
"There is nobody in the Russian special services capable of committing such a crime against our own people," Putin, a former FSB agent and director, told the newspaper Kommersant. "It is immoral even to consider such a possibility."
Standing in a cage in the courtroom Wednesday, Trepashkin, 47, said he is convinced that his work on the apartment bombing case motivated the criminal charges. "This case is utterly political," he said.
The state secrets charge, he said, involved reports from his own files from nearly a decade ago. "They have got nothing to do with Russia's state secrets.... It's a terrible joke," he said. The illegal ammunition that led to the weapons charge, his lawyers allege, was planted in his apartment when the FSB searched it.
"By having Trepashkin sentenced today, the FSB is sending out a clear-cut and unambiguous message to all its officers who still may believe it is possible to fight the system through the courts," said his lead attorney, Valery G. Glushenkov. "Look what is going to happen to you, should you decide to rebel and confront the system."
Trepashkin's wife, Tatiana Semeyutina, walked to a corner of the courtroom, turned her face to the wall and wept after the verdict was read. The couple have two young daughters.
"Many people whom I told that my husband was in prison would say: 'Everyone knew what he knew, but why did he go out and say it? It was so stupid of him,' " she said later. "In other words, everyone knows about it, but everyone is silent."