Retired Norwegian border inspector Frode Berg continues to languish in a Moscow jail, after the 62-year-old resident of Kirkenes was arrested on espionage charges earlier this month. His family has succeeded in hiring a respected Russian attorney to defend him, but remained in despair heading into the Christmas holidays.
Berg is being held amidst so much secrecy around his alleged spying that only one Norwegian diplomat and another attorney appointed by the Russian intelligence agency FSB have been allowed to speak with him since his arrest on December 5. Norwegian authorities still lacked a copy this week of the formal charges against him, and his family hasn’t been allowed access to him either.
Now Berg’s family and Norwegian lawyer, Brynjulf Risnes, have hired a top Russian defense attorney to represent Berg. Risnes told newspaper Aftenposten on Friday that Ilja Novikov “is one of the best attorneys in Moscow ” who has represented others charged in major, political cases. “Novikov is known as a fearless and independent attorney,” Risnes, who hasn’t been allowed to visit Berg in prison either, told Norwegian reporters.
Novikov must now, however, undergo an authorization process in Moscow in order to be allowed access to Berg himself. That’s expected to be delayed by the Christmas and New Year holidays, meaning Novikov probably won’t get to speak with Berg until sometime in January. Strict confidentiality and regulations that make all information around Berg’s charges classified mean Novikov likely won’t be able to share much with Berg’s family or Norwegian authorities later.
For more on Frode Berg click here, to the Kirkenes-based Independent Barents Observer (external link)
Russian media have reported that Berg was arrested and charged with spying for Norway and the CIA in the US. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Risnes complained that the Russia authorities have sealed all information, and won’t even reveal the name of the lawyer FSB appointed for Berg. “This worries his family greatly,” Risnes told Aftenposten. “It seems like they’re trying to hide something.”
While Berg’s family and friends find the spying charges preposterous, and trumped up, a Russian professor said to have good contacts within FSB told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that he’s convinced Berg is guilty. “They caught him in the act,” Professor Andrej Manoilo of Moscow State University told NRK, “when a Russian citizen handed over secret documents with information about placement of vessels” for Russia’s northern fleet. Manoilo said Berg was arrested with the documents in his hand. Berg is also suspected of paying for the information.
Risnes claims it’s “entirely improbable” that Berg paid for any information and has demanded documentation. Rune Rafaelsen, mayor of Sør-Varanger which encompasses Kirkenes, agrees and has asked the Norwegian government to take up the spying charges against Berg directly with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov.
In a letter to Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide, Rafaelsen said he hopes Solberg and Søreide can put political pressure on their Russian counterparts “so that Frode Berg can get out of prison and come home to Norway as soon as possible.” Rafaelsen noted that Solberg and Søreide will also have a chance to meet both Putin and Lavrov at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, which now is also headed by Norway’s former foreign minister, Børge Brende.
Rafaelsen said he had known and worked with Berg for the past 20 years, not least on Norwegian-Russian cooperative projects including the Barentsskirennet, a cross-country ski race in the Norwegian-Russian-Finnish border area. Berg was known as a major booster of Russian-Norwegian cooperation, and was viewed as a friend of Russia.
“He’s been a central bridge-builder and pioneer in the Norwegian-Russian cooperation,” Rafaelsen wrote in his letter to Solberg and Søreide.
Spy hunt, and retaliation
Some commentators suggest Berg’s arrest is part of Putin’s effort to step up the hunt for spies in Russia and retaliation for suspicions of spying lodged against Russia in Norway. Russia and China have long been viewed by Norwegian authorities as posing the biggest espionage threats to Norway, while top officials at the Norwegian Parliament have warned Members of Parliament against possible recruitment by “influence agents” operating in Norway.
Ola Børresen of Norway’s police intelligence agency PST told Aftenposten earlier this month that attempts had been made to recruit Norwegian authorities as spies: “There’s considerable (recruitiing) activity,” Børresen said. “PST knows that Russia and China are actively carrying out intelligence-gathering operations in Norway. They pose the greatest threat, but it’s important to be aware that other countries also carry out such activity in Norway.”
Officials at the Russian embassy in Oslo strongly rejected such claims. “We view this as a new, groundless effort at propaganda, to demonize Russia,” the embassy responded in a statement. Officials at the Chinese embassy in Oslo called such claims unfounded and “irresponsible.”