Frode Berg, the retired border inspector from Northern Norway who’s charged with espionage in Russia, was ordered held in a Moscow jail on Thursday for another three months. Berg told Norwegian reporters that he now feels both “cheated and manipulated.”
He’s clearly become a pawn in the rising tensions between Russia and Norway. Russian authorities are playing tough in their case against Berg, with Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reporting how he was escorted into the courtroom on Thursday by masked guards, before being placed in a courtroom cage used to humiliate defendants.
Berg is charged with espionage for bringing 3,000 euros in cash into Russia that Russian security agency FSB claims he was set to deliver to a contact person. That person had allegedly gathered top secret material about Russia’s Northern Fleet for either Norwegian or other western intelligence agencies, which is why Russia is reacting firmly to the allegations.
“I’m exhausted, ” Berg told NRK. The 62-year-old resident of Kirkenes who spent years promoting friendly relations between Norwegians and Russians in the Arctic has been held in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison since his arrest on December 5, with only occasional visits from Norwegian consulate staff and defense attorneys who now are being paid by the Norwegian state. The prison has been described as lacking light, fresh air and hot water.
NRK reported that Berg was given two opportunities to speak with Norwegian reporters on Thursday. When the expected verdict of another three months in jail was handed down, Berg repeated earlier claims that he feels duped by Norway’s intelligence agency known as E-tjenesten into becoming a courier of documents and money intended for alleged informants. Berg has earlier acknowledged that what he viewed as “favours” for acquaintances in Kirkenes were in reality courier services for E-tjenesten that have left him facing espionage charges and a 20-year jail term in Russia.
“It’s just a fact. I have pure and simple been cheated and manipulated into doing something I did not want to do,” Berg told NRK. “I have landed in a terrible situation.” His plight has sparked support from his hometown, where Kirkenes residents also marched on his behalf on the May 1st holiday, and creation of an art exhibit set up outside Norway’s foreign ministry in Oslo to chide Norwegian officials and make his plight better known.
Asked why he feels duped or cheated, Berg responded that it was “the way in which (his alleged assignment) was presented, what I was supposed to do.” Asked whether he was threatened or pressured into carrying EUR 3,000 into Russia, Berg replied “not threatened, no,” without answering whether he was pressured into delivering the money during what he described as a pre-holiday visit to Moscow in early December.
NRK has reported earlier that Berg had made several trips to Russia as a courier for people who’ve since been linked to Norwegian or other western intelligence agencies. His last trip to Moscow in December ended with his arrest.
He said he now expects Norwegian intelligence officers “to take responsibility” for his plight. He otherwise said he now has “good contact” with his family in Kirkenes through personnel at the Norwegian Embassy in Moscow, who can visit him once every 14 days. He said he does not want any family members to visit him, though, because the “terrible” prison conditions under which he’s forced to live would be “too traumatic” for them.
He said he’s living in a 9.5-square meter cell that he must share with another person, and in which they must live, sleep, eat and try to keep themselves clean. “I’ve begun worrying about my health,” Berg said, referring to the confinement in tight quarters 23 hours a day, and the “terrible food” they’re served. “I’m not 30 or even 40 years old any longer, I’m not doing well in this situation.”
He told NRK that prison staff behaves “properly” towards him, but stressed that conditions are nonetheless very tough. “It’s a Russian prison,” he said with a shrug. He told NRK he has never received compensation of any kind for the alleged courier assignments he’s carried out for E-tjenesten, which has refused to answer questions about Berg’s arrest or imprisonment.