KRASNOYARSK, Russia (Reuters) - A Russian scientist freed on Saturday after nearly a decade in jail for selling secrets to China accused Vladimir Putin’s “court” of turning the Kremlin leader into a tsar and of using the legal system to punish opponents.
Valentin Danilov, 66, looked pale and thin as he was released on parole from a prison colony on the edge of the industrial Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk after serving eight years of a 14-year sentence.
But he was defiant over a case which human rights activists say was politically motivated and part of an attempt by Putin to intimidate academics with ties to other countries during his first term as president.
“I would really appreciate it if somebody finally told me what state secret I sold,” Danilov told reporters after he emerged from the prison colony’s high corrugated walls and travelled by car through the snow-dusted streets of Krasnoyarsk to his daughter’s apartment.
He declined to comment directly on President Putin but criticised Russia’s political and judicial system nearly 13 years after the former KGB spy first rose to power and more than two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“As for President Putin, I guess everybody would be the same as him in his place. The court makes the tsar. In many cases it’s the people around him that are guilty rather than him himself,” said Danilov.
“The problem is not one of law but of how the judging is done ... We have three branches of power - the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. It’s a fight between the legislative and executive with the court in-between. They should pull in different directions so that the court works well, but if they all pull in only one direction, then what?”
Human rights activists see Danilov’s case as an example of the Kremlin using the courts against its opponents though Putin, who was president from 2000 until 2008 and began a third term in May, has denied influencing the judiciary.
Critics say Putin is using similar tactics today too by pushing laws through parliament that could be used to crack down on what have been the biggest protests against him since the start of his 13-year domination of Russia.
Danilov, a researcher at Krasnoyarsk State University, was first arrested in 2001. He admitted selling information about satellite technology to a Chinese company but said the information had already been available from public sources.
An initial decision to acquit him was overturned and he was sentenced to 14 years in prison in a second trial in 2004. A Krasnoyarsk court granted him parole earlier this month.
Krasnoyarsk was once part of the Gulag prison camp system where Soviet dictator Josef Stalin sent many of his political opponents.
Danilov smiled, joked and laughed with reporters as he took frequent calls from well-wishers, although at times he seemed nervous. Asked about his health, the physicist said: “I‘m fine. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”
He said he had been treated well by other prisoners and thanked human rights organisations for providing him with books, praising the messages of support he had received from U.S. physicists. He said he had received no such support from Russia’s own Academy of Sciences.
Asked if he considered himself a political prisoner, he said: “Absolutely ... No money can compensate for 10 years of your life.”
Explaining how he was accused of espionage, he said he had been the head of a scientists’ exchange programme with China under which Beijing had made the first payment. The charges against him, he said, were “fantasy” but he had no regrets.
Dressed formally in a red tie and grey jacket, Danilov declined to go into details about his life in prison except to complain that he had not been allowed access to the Internet.
He said he had no immediate plans to take on a public role and would spend time with family and friends.
He hoped to return to science but said he would avoid space, the area in which he was accused of spying.
Under the terms of his parole, he must check in with police once a month, and plans to live with his wife in their home in Novosibirsk, also in Siberia.
“Russia is my fate. How could I go anywhere else,” he said.
Writing by Gabriela Baczynska and Timothy Heritage; Editing by Andrew Osborn