After spending 14 months investigating espionage charges against retired Norwegian border inspector Frode Berg, and holding him in prison all along, his trial was due to be over after just two days in court. A Russian prosecutor, meanwhile, claims he’s only suspected of being a courier and not spying for Norway or gathering information on Russia’s nuclear submarines.
Berg’s Russian defense attorney Ilja Novikov told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that Berg’s trial was “in practice over,” after just a day and half in court this week. Closing arguments are scheduled for one additional day next week and Novikov expects a verdict from the Moscow city court on or around April 16.
Swap or pardon predicted
Berg is expected to be declared guilty and faces a prison term of 10 to 20 years. The 16 months he’s already spent in a Moscow prison would be pared off the sentence, and many Russian and Norwegian foreign policy experts expect he’ll be be swapped for a convicted Russian spy held by one of Norway’s allies.
Hopes were thus rising in his hometown of Kirkenes in Northern Norway that he’ll finally be able to return. There’s been speculation in Norway that Prime Minister Erna Solberg may be able to work out a prisoner swap deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin when the two leaders meet at a Russian-Arctic conference in St Petersburg next week, or that Putin may even pardon him.
Berg pleaded not guilty to the espionage charges when his trial started on Tuesday. He has acknowledged contact with Norwegian intelligence agents and admitted he carried cash (EUR 3,000) into Russia, but insists he was merely duped into being a courier and had no knowledge of what documents he was carrying or who was supposed to receive the cash.
No submarine suspicions
NRK also reported late Wednesday that Russian prosecutor Milana Digajeva now denies she told Russian media that Berg was believed to be more than just a courier. Russian media had quoted her as saying he spied for Norway and gathered information on Russia’s new Yasen-class nuclear submarines that are supposed to hunt for NATO vessels.
She also reportedly said that Berg was arrested while he received information from a Russian citizen who worked for a company in the defense industry. The citizen, she allegedly said, was under the control of Russia’s state police intelligence agency FSB, indicating that the Russians had set a trap for Berg.
Digajeva, however, denied making such statements, repeating to NRK that Berg is only suspected of courier activity. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she told NRK’s reporter in Moscow when he cited the Russian media reports. “I did not say what you’re referring to.”
The trial itself is closed to media coverage, with information coming only from the lawyers. Norway’s military and foreign intelligence agency which is believed to have recruited Berg has come under intense criticism over its involvement in the case.
Norway’s police intelligence agency PST, meanwhile, dropped its case against a politically connected Russian citizen who had behaved suspiciously during a conference at the Norwegian Parliament last fall. He’d been arrested, raising speculation he’d be used in a potential spy swap, but was ultimately released from custody and no charges will be filed.