Kirkenes rallies to ‘bring Frode home’

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Christmas Eve services at the church in Norway’s northern town of Kirkenes broke into unusual and spontaneous applause, when the pastor leading them called for the release of local resident Frode Berg from a Moscow prison. Berg faces serious charges of espionage after he was arrested by Russian security police, but now claims he was lured into a trap.

The pastor at this church in Kirkenes appealed for the release of local resident Frode Berg during Christmas Eve services. Berg is charged with espionage in Russia. PHOTO:

Newspaper Aftenposten reported Wednesday how Pastor Thorbjørn Brox Webber brought up Berg’s arrest and imprisonment during services in his hometown of Kirkenes on Christmas Eve. Webber preached from the pulpit that “big politics” can “strike like a clenched fist” in real life, and that “this has happened with our own Frode Berg.” Webber cited “big politics’ need to make examples … and remind peace-seeking people” that they can never feel completely secure.

“The message from Kirkenes Church this Christmas is therefore this: Peace on Earth, strengthen the Norwegian-Russia cooperation and bring Frode home,” Webber told the congregation, which responded with applause.

Webber told Aftenposten that Berg’s arrest “affects the local community here enormously.” Berg, age 62, leads the church council for the local region of Sør-Varanger in Norway’s northernmost county of Finnmark. Berg worked there for 25 years as an inspector along the nearby Norwegian-Russian border before retiring in 2014. Webber said he’d known Berg since he was 12 years old and played in a school band that Berg also led. “Frode Berg is a kind, friendly and nice man with a big heart for people and the community here,” claimed Webber, who’s now trying to make sure Berg will be allowed to receive visitors in the high-security prison in Moscow where he’s being held since his arrest on espionage charges in early December.

Frode Berg, when he still worked as a border inspector before retiring in 2014. He has long been an active promoter of good relations between Norway and Russia, but now sits in a Moscow jail cell, charged with espionage. PHOTO: Independent Barents Observer/Atle Staalesen

Berg’s new Russian defense attorney, hired by his family in Norway, was allowed to meet with Berg on Tuesday and said Berg was in good shape given difficult conditions in the high-security prison where he’s being held. Attorney Ilja Novikov told Aftenposten that Berg was under huge pressure, however, and claims he’s innocent.

“Berg says he was lured into a trap,” Novikov said. He was carrying an envelope containing cash when he was arrested by Russian security police FSB, Novikov said. On Wednesday, Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that the cash amounted to EUR 3,000 (nearly NOK 30,000), and that FSB claims it was meant to pay for intelligence information passed on by a Russian citizen who’s also charged in the case.

‘Possible Berg was naive’
Norwegian media reported that Berg’s Norwegian attorney Brynjulf Risnes said Novikov had told him that Berg had been asked by unidentified people who live in Norway to deliver some money in Moscow. It’s that money Berg allegedly was carrying when he was arrested.

“Berg said he had no idea (there would be) anything suspicious about (carrying the money),” Risnes told NRK. Risnes said he doesn’t know who was supposed to receive the money carried by Berg in Moscow. He added, though, that “we think it’s clear that FSB knew about this and sat in Moscow and waited for him (Berg).”

Risnes said his client thought he was just doing a favour for an acquaintance. “It’s fully possible Berg was naive, and there are things that will be taken up with with him that he’ll have an opportunity to clarify.  I think we shall believe him when he says he had no idea it could be illegal (to carry cash).”

It remains unclear who Berg was meeting in Russia. “He has a lot of contacts there,” Risnes said. “I don’t know concretely who he was meeting.”

‘A political case’
Novikov, the Russian attorney, told NRK he “wasn’t especially optimistic” about Berg’s case. “FSB has its agenda and wants a conviction,” Novikov said, adding that an exchange of prisoners may be a motive for Russia. Russian authorities have also tied Berg to alleged receipt of classified information about Russian maritime activity in the Arctic.

“It’s important that he (Berg) gets support from Norway,” Novikov said. “This is a political case, perhaps an agreement can be made between the governments. It’s important that the Norwegian government understands that.”

Top Norwegian politicians have referred all questions to Foreign Ministry spokesman Frode Overland Andersen, who continues to claim that Norwegian officials have not received any formal charges against Berg. Andersen told NRK on Wednesday that staff from Norway’s embassy in Moscow would visit Berg for a second time this week. “We want to support him in the best possible way and look after his interests,” Andersen said.

Berg’s family has complained that the ministry isn’t doing enough to help Berg. “I understand that the family and the lawyers are impatient,” Berg said, “but we have to relate to the Russian system as it is, not as we want it to be.” He wouldn’t comment on Novikov’s opinion that the case can only be resolved politically. Berglund