Russia's top court upholds decree to classify army losses

Members of the OSCE Mission control the withdrawal of heavy weapons of pro-Russian separatists near the western Ukrainian city of Donetsk on July 19, 2015 (AFP Photo/Aleksey Filippov)

Moscow (AFP) - Russia's Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a Kremlin decree to classify troop deaths during peace time, seen as an attempt to cover up Moscow's role in the Ukraine crisis.

The court ruled against a complaint by several activists and journalists that the decree was illegal and aimed at preventing any information about Russia's military role in eastern Ukraine from being made public.

Signed by President Vladimir Putin in late May, it adds "military losses during war time and during special operations in peace time" to the types of information that constitute a state secret.

Russia's independent media, opposition activists and rights lawyers have been piling evidence of troop losses over the past year but reports of secret funerals and grieving families have been kept out of state media and rejected by the government.

The eight-hour long court session revealed that the decree was initially pitched to the government by the military, the foreign intelligence service and the FSB security service, said Ruslan Leviyev, one of the people behind the complaint.

He said that he and other co-complainants had tried to press the Kremlin administration in court to explain what constitutes a "special operation" but the judge let the matter slide.

Leviyev earlier this year said he tracked down Russian soldiers who were killed in eastern Ukraine through social media and published pictures of some of the graves.

Russian authorities have rejected any reports and allegations of its regular army being involved in the conflict between Kiev and the pro-Russian separatists who declared independence in a part of the east.

Kiev and Western countries however believe that Russian troops are still helping the separatists.

Ukraine's SBU security service say they have several Russian officers in custody, including members of the GRU military intelligence.

On Thursday, the SBU published a video with a man who identified himself as Russian major Vladimir Starkov. The man was arrested by Ukrainian border guards in July while transporting ammunition in eastern Ukraine.

"I didn't resist arrest because officially I was not in front of an enemy," Starkov said in the video. "Ukraine did not declare war on us and we are also not enemies of Ukraine."

He had said earlier that officers end up in Ukraine after being sent to Russia's southern Rostov region, where they are ordered to go across the border after agreeing to a pseudonym and leaving real identification documents behind.