* Russian physicist jailed for spying paroled
* Activists said his case was politically motivated
* Campaigners say Danilov poses no political threat
By Gabriela Baczynska
MOSCOW, Nov 13 A Russian court on Tuesday
paroled a physicist convicted in 2004 of spying for China, a
case rights activists said was an example of Vladimir Putin's
use of the courts against opponents.
Rights campaigners welcomed the three-year reduction of
Valentin Danilov's 14-year sentence but said it did not signal
the president would halt what they say is the Kremlin's practice
of using the judiciary to stifle dissent.
In his 60s, Danilov is expected to be freed in 10 days. He
watched the hearing from his prison in Siberia's Krasnoyarsk
region by videolink.
"I think he was quite shocked when he heard the opinion of
the prosecutor who...supported the appeal (for early release),"
his lawyer Yelena Yevmenova said on NTV television.
He and other scientists had said the satellite technology
data he passed to China more than a decade ago was declassified
and that the case was politically motivated.
The Kremlin has denied influencing the courts and says it is
wrong to describe the treatment of Putin's opponents as a
clampdown on dissent.
The hearing had been postponed several times because of
ill-health, state-run channel Rossiya said. Bespectacled with
graying hair, he looked frail but alert in televised archive
footage taken between 2001 and 2004.
He will be freed unless the ruling is challenged but will
remain on parole for the rest of his term.
"Danilov has already served two-thirds of this term, behaved
well," said Maria Fomushina, spokesman for the court. "The
decision also took into account his health condition."
She gave no details of his health, nor did his lawyer.
Danilov, who was first arrested in 2001, was a researcher at
Krasnoyarsk State University. He admitted selling information
about satellite technology to a Chinese company but said the
information had already been available from public sources.
An initial decision to acquit him was overturned and he was
sentenced in a second trial.
Danilov's case was one of several during Putin's first spell
as president from 2000 until 2008 that were seen by opponents as
an attempt to intimidate academics with ties to other countries.
Putin started a third term in May.
His opponents cite the jailing of two members of the
all-women punk protest band Pussy Riot in August as evidence
that the Kremlin is still exploiting the lack of independence of
the judiciary to smother dissent.
NO PRECEDENT SET
Jailed Putin critics also include Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the
former head of the YUKOS oil company and once Russia's richest
man, who is still in prison after being arrested in 2003 and
convicted of fraud, tax evasion, theft and money laundering.
An aide to Khodorkovsky, Platon Lebedev, had his 13-year
sentence on the same charges reduced by three years last month
but rights activists said they did not see his or Danilov's case
as setting a precedent.
"It's great that Danilov will be paroled. But looking for
signs of change in the general course of affairs in single
events is simply wrong after half-a-year of (Putin) pursuing
repressive measures," said Alexander Cherkasov, head of the
human rights group Memorial.
"It's just that so many areas of public life have been
spoilt - and people are used to looking for hidden meaning in
everything - that they cannot believe it now that law was simply
and properly enacted on just one square metre."
Pavel Chikov, head of human rights group Agora, said Lebedev
and Danilov would not have been freed if they were still
regarded by the Kremlin as a political threat.
"If they are letting Danilov, or Lebedev for that matter,
go, that only means the authorities are no longer afraid of
them," he said.
Kremlin has been criticised abroad over the sentences handed
down on Pussy Riot members who burst into Moscow's main Russian
Orthodox cathedral in February and performed a profane
anti-Putin "punk prayer".
Opposition activists say the sentence was harsh, although
many Russians opposed the Pussy Riot protest, and that the
Kremlin used the case as a warning to other critics.
Since May, the Russian parliament has rushed through laws
which Putin's foes say are designed to quell criticism and
several opposition leaders have been charged over their role in
protests and could be jailed.
Responding to the criticism, the former KGB spy, now 60,
offered some flexibility on Monday over the laws that have
alarmed rights groups but rights activists said they were not
clear what, if any, concessions he might make.