Russian hypersonics expert jailed for 14 years for treason

By Thomson Reuters May 21, 2024 | 5:22 AM

By Mark Trevelyan

LONDON (Reuters) – Elderly Russian physicist Anatoly Maslov was sentenced on Tuesday to 14 years in a penal colony for treason, the latest of a string of cases against experts working on the science that underpins Russia’s development of hypersonic missiles.

Maslov, 77, was convicted by a St Petersburg court following a trial that was closed to the press. He had protested his innocence.

Maslov is one of three scientists from the same Siberian institute, all specialists in hypersonics, who have been arrested since 2022 on treason charges. The other two, Alexander Shiplyuk and Valery Zvegintsev, are awaiting trial.

They – along with a number of other scientists accused in similar cases – had conducted theoretical work in areas relevant to the development of hypersonic missiles – cutting-edge weapons capable of carrying payloads at up to 10 times the speed of sound to punch through air-defence systems.

President Vladimir Putin has said repeatedly that Russia is a world leader in this field of weaponry.

Lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov of Pervy Otdel (First Department), an association that specialises in defending people in cases of treason and espionage, said the charges against the three scientists were approximately the same – spilling information considered a state secret while participating in an international conference or research.

“Any conviction against Maslov is a gross violation of the law,” he told Reuters.

“I am sure that Maslov is not guilty of the acts accused of him and is a victim of the policies of the Russian authorities.”

In a rare open letter published last year, colleagues of Maslov, Shiplyuk and Zvegintsev said the men were innocent and the scientific papers they had published or presented to international conferences had been vetted to ensure they did not include restricted information.

They said the cases were having a chilling effect on Russian academia and making it impossible for scientists to do their jobs.

In response, the Kremlin said at the time that the men faced “very serious accusations” and their cases were a matter for the security services.

Russian media cited Maslov’s lawyer as saying that the physicist, in a final address to the court, said he had dedicated his whole life to science and never dreamt of betraying his country.

The defence said Maslov had suffered a heart attack at the start of the year and a long jail term would be tantamount to a death sentence.

Last month Alexander Kuranov, another scientist in the same field, was jailed for seven years. Russian newspaper Kommersant said he had been given a reduced sentence in return for testifying against Maslov. Reuters was unable to confirm this.

“It is obvious that the persecution of scientists is an exclusively political step by the Russian authorities, by which they seek to show that intelligence services around the world are trying to steal the secrets of Russian weapons,” said Smirnov of Pervy Otdel.

He said the detained scientists were not working directly on weapons, but were studying physical processes associated with high speeds.

“The essence of the charge is approximately the same for everyone,” Smirnov said, adding that the so-called secrets were actually “openly published and available to anyone”.

(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Nick Macfie)