Frode Berg, the former Norwegian border inspector from Kirkenes who was arrested on espionage charges in Moscow last month, was finally granted some time in a Russian court this week. He was reduced to tears, however, and his appeal to be released on bail was rejected.
Both newspaper Aftenposten and Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), who gained access to the Moscow courtroom on Tuesday, reported Berg to be in deep despair. Like other defendants in Russian courts, he was confined in a cage in the center of the courtroom, with guards on both sides of it.
Berg was prevented from greeting the Norwegian reporters when they were allowed in, an hour and a half after his custody trial had begun. Russian authorities have classified most all information related to Berg’s case and even his Russian defense attorney Ilja Novikov has been officially muzzled: He can’t say anything about what arguments Russian security agency FSB have made in the case or what prompted the judge in the case to reject Berg’s appeal of more custody.
Berg was clearly distraught, wearing a long-sleeved blue shirt and holding his head as he visibly cried inn frustration. A pile of hand-written notes were spotted next to him in the cage.
“They’re accusing me of something I haven’t done,” Berg burst out when the Norwegians entered the courtroom, prompting one of the guards to point his finger at Berg and command that he had no permission to speak. Berg then raised both hands and took a step backwards in his cage, before continuing to cry.
“It’s easy to understand that Frode Berg cried,” Novikov told Aftenposten. “He’s in a terrible situation and isn’t allowed to speak to his family. It’s a natural reaction when he understands that this isn’t going to be over for a while.”
The popular resident of Kirkenes, where the locals have rallied to “bring Frode home,” faces a prison sentence of from 10 to 20 years on the charges that he was an accessory to spying against Russia and the Russian Navy in the Arctic. He was arrested December 5 while on a weekend trip to Moscow, and found to be carrying EUR 3,000 in cash that he says he was asked by two Norwegian citizens to mail to a woman from a Russian post office. Berg claims he was merely doing a favour for the two, who have not been identified, while his attorney fears he was caught in a trap.
“We still don’t know whether Berg walked into a trap or whether he, without understanding it himself, was actually involved in a real spying operation involving foreign intelligence,” Novikov told reporters. “Nor do we know whether the two Norwegian citizens who gave him the money to carry are innocent.”
‘Extremely tough’ prison conditions
Berg is also being held in what Aftenposten described as “extremely tough” conditions at the Lefortovo Prison in Moscow. He now faces detention for another six months while FSB, which hasn’t taken the time to question him for the past four weeks, investigates his case.
“For a 62-year-old man like Frode Berg, a half-year under such prison conditions can be extremely serious,” Novikov said. He offered the court bail equivalent to NOK 700,000 in return for transferring Berg to house arrest in Moscow. The request was rejected and his custody at Lefortovo was extended until February 5.
Novikov said that according to the charges filed against Berg, he’s viewed by FSB as a courier and messenger. FSB reportedly has not claimed that Berg was actually gathering information himself.