A court in Oslo didn’t go along on Thursday with a request by Norway’s police intelligence service PST to keep an alleged Russian spy in custody any longer. Mikhail Botsjkarjov, a Russian security expert at Russia’s parliament in Moscow, said he now wants to travel home as soon as possible.
PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste) had sought to keep Botsjkarjov in custody for at least another two weeks, while it continued to investigate the charges against him. Botsjkarjov was arrested at Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen after leaving a seminar he’d attended at the Norwegian Parliament in late September, and charged with espionage after he’d been observed behaving suspiciously. Concerns rose that he had planted listening devices or some other means of surveillance in the Parliament building (Stortinget), and an investigation was launched.
Release order ‘unusual’ and under appeal
Botsjkarjov, age 51, had vigorously denied the charges against him and claimed it was all a “misunderstanding.” State broadcaster NRK reported on Thursday that the Oslo County Court (Oslo Tingrett) could find no grounds for continuing to keep him in custody.
His Norwegian defense attorney, Hege Aakre, admitted to being surprised that the court ordered her client’s release. “It’s unusual that a defense attorney is granted such a release in a custody case,” Aakre told NRK. “It shows how thin the evidence has been.” She also stressed that Botsjkarjov has cooperated with police under questioning and given what she claims is a “credible clarification” of his actions while inside Parliament.
Botsjkarjov can’t get on a plane out of Norway just yet, though. PST immediately appealed the custody release order and asked that he remain in jail until the appeal is considered and another ruling is in place.
Spy swap speculation
The case has also been linked to Russian officials’ arrest of a Norwegian man in Moscow last December. Frode Berg, a retired border inspector from Kirkenes, has been held in a Moscow prison ever since, charged with espionage. Berg fears he was “duped” into being a courier for Norwegian intelligence, and his hopes rose that Botsjkarjov’s arrest in Oslo would lead to a swap.
PST adamantly denies it arrested Botsjkarjov as a means of getting the Russians to release Berg. “This is solely about information PST received regarding the seminar at the Parliament,” prosecutor Kathrine Tonstad told NRK on Thursday. She said PST simply needs more time to conclude its investigation of Botsjkarjov’s activities at the Norwegian Parliament.