MOSCOW — A Siberian physicist was convicted of spying at a retrial today, overturning his earlier acquittal in a case widely seen as part of an effort by government hard-liners to assert greater control over academics, writers and environmentalists.
Valentin Danilov, a scholar at Krasnoyarsk State Technical University, was convicted of selling state secrets to a Chinese physics institute and import-export firm, and of embezzlement from his school — charges he has denied.
The case grew out of a legal business arrangement with the Chinese that involved static electricity, satellites and weather forecasting, he said.
“It is a strictly political case,” Danilov said today in a telephone interview from his home in Krasnoyarsk, where he remains free — although closely watched by security officers — pending sentencing.
The scientist, who was acquitted 8 to 4 by a jury in his first trial last year, was convicted by another jury 12 to 0 today after prosecutors won reinstatement of the case on appeal — something that is allowed in the Russian legal system.
Danilov said that the alleged secrets had been public information for years. The alleged embezzlement, he said, concerned money from China that had been paid to associates who worked on the project, but later died, making it impossible for them to confirm in court that they had received the money.
Democracy activists have expressed fears that legal action against Danilov and similar cases such as the conviction of arms control researcher Igor V. Sutyagin for allegedly passing military secrets to foreigners mark a resurgence of Soviet-era KGB tactics.
“This is not metamorphosis of the court system, this is the metamorphosis of the country,” said Alexander Petrov, deputy director of the Moscow office of New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“This can only happen in conditions of infringement of human rights, when the atmosphere of suspicion is thickening all around you, when the FSB [the main successor to the KGB] and the government as a whole is continuing its attack not only on rights and freedoms, but on the principles of federalism,” Petrov said. “What happened to Danilov is just one more manifestation of a very dangerous process in general.”
The charges against him fell into two categories, Danilov said. One charge was that he provided information concerning how to imitate space conditions, including material about a nuclear accelerator at his university. But all that information had been previously published and was available publicly, he said.
“It is not secret,” he stressed. “It is out there in the books.”
The second charge, he said, was that he embezzled $15,000 of the total of $127,000 that the Chinese paid for the project.
“I had two witnesses who could have proven that I didn’t embezzle this sum, but unfortunately they both died, in 2000 and 2001,” Danilov said.
“The work was done and the Chinese were happy with it,” he said. “They didn’t ask me to account for any money. Why do the prosecutors ask me to account for how I spent the $15,000 of Chinese money? It is none of their business if the Chinese had no problem with it. I paid the money to people who helped do the work, and then unfortunately died.”
Danilov is scheduled for sentencing Wednesday. He said he would appear for sentencing with “various books in which this ‘secret’ is many times exposed.” While the judge could determine that there was no criminal intent and free him, Danilov said he did not expect that outcome.
“In reality, I will get 10 years of imprisonment,” he said.
“I am at home now, but there are dozens of people watching me around the clock on either side of the house. I wish I could leak myself out through the sewage, but it is impossible. So I have to sit here,” he said.
Staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.