Russian Scientist Freed After a Decade in Jail for Espionage
Valentin Danilov was accused of spying for China.
Danilov looks out of a train carriage the day after he was released from a penal colony, at a railway station in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk. (Ilya Naymushin/Reuters)
Russian scientist Valentin Danilov has walked free after a decade in jail on charges of spying for China. After his release on parole in the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk on
November 24, Danilov, 66, said that he regarded himself as a political
prisoner because the information he passed on was declassified. Danilov was sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2004 following a
high-profile, three-year legal saga that saw him fully acquitted before a
second trial resulted in a conviction on charges of passing state
secrets to China. His sentence was later reduced by one year.
The surprise decision to release him early was hailed by rights
campaigners and fellow scientists, who say his case was politically
motivated and believe he should never have been jailed in the first
place. Danilovhas fervently maintained his innocence. His lawyer Yelena Yevmenova said that once out of prison, he would likely seek to clear his name. "My impression is that despite his long jail term, he has lost neither
the interest nor the desire to be acquitted," Yevmenova said.
But Yevmenova said he would first need time to readjust to life outside prison. "He needs to spend some time with his family, to get used to life
outside [prison]," Yevmenova said. "He was in detention for many years.
During that time his granddaughter grew up [and] went to school, and
many other events happened in his family that he needs to process." Yevmenova said Danilov would spend the remainder of his probation time
either in Novosibirsk, where his wife Tamara lives, or closer to his
daughter in Krasnoyarsk.
Danilov is being released three years early from his high-security
prison in the Krasnoyarsk region for good behavior and health reasons.
It is unclear what ails him, although he wrote in a blog for RFE/RL's
Russian Service that he was frail and had lost most of his teeth in
Danilov's case was one of a dozen espionage trials to take place in the
early 2000s during Vladimir Putin's first term as president. The cases were widely denounced as a "spy-mania" aimed chiefly at
deterring Russian academics from forming ties with other countries.
As with many other Russian scientists, low wages and a lack of domestic
demand had persuaded Danilov to work under contract with foreigners. The director of the Thermo-Physics Center at Krasnoyarsk State
Technical University at the time of his arrest, Danilov claimed he had
received official clearance to collaborate with a Chinese firm on
building equipment designed to model the impact of the space environment
on satellites. During his court trial, he displayed documents seemingly proving that
the data he passed to the Chinese were declassified and available from
At the time, a string of human rights campaigners and scientists in
Russia and abroad had called for Danilov's acquittal, including Russian
veteran activist Lyudmila Alekseyeva and Nobel Physics Prize laureate
Vitaly Ginzburg. Both are members of Russia's Committee to Protect Scientists, a group
created more than a decade ago to defend scientists targeted by
espionage and treason charges. Both said the information Danilov gave to
China was available in "school textbooks."
Alekseyeva -- who befriended Danilov after her committee helped secure
his first release in 2002 -- said she believed his professions of
innocence due to both a lack of convincing evidence against him and his
candid personality. "He came across as a very sincere, trusting person," Alekseyeva said,
"but this played a fateful role in his case, because he may not have
taken all the possible precautions to shield himself from such a twist
of fate." Alekseyeva said Danilov's personable character earned him the respect of
both prison guards and inmates, who quickly nicknamed him "Professor."
But the letters he sent her from prison, she said, showed that his inability to practice science deeply demoralized him. "He's a born scientist. His head is always brimming with ideas that he
wants to put into practice," Alekseyeva said. "Back then, he was
obsessed with an idea he had developed that consisted in recovering the
large amounts of heat released by aluminum-producing factories that
operate in Krasnoyarsk and elsewhere to heat cities. He euphorically
tried to explain his scheme to me, but of course I couldn't understand
any of it."
His chances of reviving his career, however, appear slim. Most
scientists who served time for espionage have been unable to find jobs
in their field in Russia. While Danilov was legally eligible for parole, his early release is seen
by some as a Kremlin attempt to appease public opinion over a
controversial new law broadening the definition of treason. Opponents say the new legislation will put almost anyone who has contact
with foreigners at risk and could be abused to silence critics. Putin signed the bill into law on November 14 -- one day after a court ordered Danilov's release.
This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
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