Courtesy of AFP
September 12, 2014
An Estonian policeman detained by Russian security services has been charged with espionage in a case that has sent tensions soaring between Moscow and its small NATO-member neighbour.
Tallinn has accused Moscow of abducting Eston Kohver at gunpoint from Estonian territory. He now faces up to two decades in jail.
The arrest of the Estonian national came just days after US President Barack Obama visited the former Soviet state last week to calm the nerves of Washington’s Baltic allies over the Ukraine crisis.
“Eston Kohver was charged on September 8 with espionage,” his lawyer Nikolai Polozov told AFP on Thursday. “He faces up to 20 years in prison.”
The controversial detention has alarmed people in the tiny country of Estonia, which was occupied by the Soviet Union for half a century before it broke free from the crumbling USSR in 1991.
Along with fellow Baltic states the nation of 1.3 million joined the EU and NATO in 2004 as a bulwark against Russian influence.
The European Union on Thursday called for “an immediate release of Mr Kohver and his safe return to Estonia,” a spokesperson for the bloc’s diplomatic service said in a statement.
The statement added that the EU delegation in Moscow was in contact with the Russian authorities to seek a quick solution to the “abduction” of Kohver.
Lawyer Polozov said that he had not yet been able to visit Kohver, who is being held in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, used to jail those being investigated by the FSB security services.
“I can’t yet give his version of events since my colleague and I only took on the case yesterday and so far have not managed to see our client,” Polozov said.
“He is being held in Lefortovo pre-trial detention centre. That’s the FSB jail. In order to get inside, you have to get a special permit.”
The FSB, the successor agency to the Soviet-era KGB, declined immediate comment on Thursday.
In a rare public statement, the FSB announced last week it had detained Kohver as he attempted to carry out intelligence gathering in northwestern Russia close to the Estonian border.
Tallinn’s President Toomas Hendrik Ilves gave a different account, accusing Moscow of kidnapping its national on Estonian soil as he was investigating cross-border crime.
Estonian prosecutors said Kohver was taken at gunpoint in action-film style, veiled by a smoke grenade after the Russians jammed his communications.
Polozov told AFP that the defence team would be arguing that the charges against Kohver were unlawful because he was abducted.
“The charges of espionage are groundless and illegal since if a person is abducted, everything that is done to him afterwards is illegal,” the lawyer said.
He also wrote on Twitter that his team had filed a complaint over Kohver’s detention.
“I saw Kohver’s case. There’s a heap of ‘secret’ classifications so I had to sign off on state secrets,” he tweeted. “Don’t even ask me to tell you.”
Polozov is a high-profile rights lawyer who was part of the defence team for the Pussy Riot punk band members.
‘Unprecedented in post-Cold War era’
The FSB has claimed that Kohver works for Estonia’s security police, which oversees internal security and intelligence gathering.
The agency also said he was carrying covert recording equipment, a pistol and what appeared to be assignments for an intelligence mission, as well as 5,000 euros ($6,500).
Russian television aired FSB footage of the evidence and showed a grim-faced Kohver being led into a Moscow court by security operatives wearing black masks.
Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet has complained that Moscow has failed to update Estonian authorities on the incident and diplomats have been unable to see Kohver.
Eerik-Niiles Kross, a former Estonian intelligence chief and diplomat, told AFP Kohver’s arrest was unprecedented “during the entire post-Cold War era”.
“In my opinion, it is not only an extraordinary event in Estonia but also much wider in the relationship between Russia and NATO.”