Russia sentences Norwegian to 14 years over espionage

Ola CICHOWLAS
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Norwegian Frode Berg, 63, was detained in 2017

Norwegian Frode Berg, 63, was detained in 2017 (AFP Photo/Maxim ZMEYEV)

Moscow (AFP) - A Moscow court on Tuesday convicted a retired Norwegian border guard on spying charges and sentenced him to 14 years in prison.

Frode Berg, 63, was detained in Moscow in 2017 following a sting operation by Russia's FSB security service. Prosecutors accused him of spying on the country's nuclear submarines.

Judge Andrei Suvorov of the Moscow City Court found Berg guilty of espionage and jailed him for 14 years in a strict-regime penal colony.

A dejected, tired-looking Berg, dressed in a dark suit and white shirt, stood inside a glass cage as the judge read out the verdict in front of journalists.

It was the only time the trial was open to the media and many details of the case remain unclear.

Russian prosecutors accused Berg of spying on the country's nuclear submarines.

The FSB declined to comment on Tuesday.

In December, a former Russian police officer was accused of handing Berg files on the Russian navy and given a 13-year prison term.

Berg has admitted to acting several times as a courier for the Norwegian intelligence but said he thought he was only carrying money.

The defence team said they hoped diplomatic efforts could persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin to sign a presidential pardon so Berg could be released and go home.

Berg's lawyer Ilya Novikov said his client calmly accepted the sentencing.

"He expects his government to undertake diplomatic efforts," Novikov said, adding Berg was not planning to appeal.

"We see no practical use in appealing."

- 'Basically a life sentence' -

Both Novikov and Berg's Norwegian lawyer Brynjulf Risnes said an effort by Norway had probably been made to gather intelligence.

"There are indications that the Norwegian intelligence has been involved in the case," Risnes told AFP.

"That makes it both a professional scandal and potentially also a political scandal in Norway. As soon as he gets back to Norway, another phase of the scandal will start: finding out what really happened."

Novikov insists Berg "had been used without his knowledge".

He also warned that Berg might not survive a lengthy prison sentence in Russia.

"He's 63 and given the conditions of Russian prisons that's basically a life sentence."

Berg's case was raised during a meeting between Putin and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg last week.

Asked by a journalist about the possibility of Berg being pardoned, Putin said: "A person can only be pardoned if he has been convicted. He has not been convicted yet."

Novikov said that the fact that Putin spoke publicly about the case was "probably a good sign."

Russian lawyer and human rights activist Ivan Pavlov, who often defends people accused of espionage and treason, suggested Berg might indeed be granted a pardon.

"There were such precedents," Pavlov told AFP.

Risnes said that governments typically exchange their nationals convicted of spying but added that "there is no such case in Norway".

"We don't really know what they have to give," he added.

NATO member Norway normally enjoys good ties with neighbouring Russia, with which it shares a land border.

But relations have grown more tense since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and a pro-Russian insurgency erupted in eastern Ukraine.

In recent years, Russia has broadened its definition of treason and espionage, alarming rights groups.

Espionage is punishable in Russia by up to 20 years in prison.

In another high-profile case, former US Marine Paul Whelan was detained in late December and charged with espionage.