Russia Says British Used Rock to Spy

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

MOSCOW, Jan. 23 -- Russia's domestic security service on Monday accused four British diplomats of committing espionage using electronic equipment placed inside a fake rock in a Moscow park.

The service also accused one of the diplomats of channeling money to Russian human rights groups and other nongovernmental organizations, which have been under attack by the Kremlin as agents of foreign influence.

State-run television said a Russian working for the British transmitted data to the fake rock using a hand-held device. The show aired video of people coming and going from the rock; it also displayed documents alleging transfer of funds to the nongovernmental groups by one of the diplomats.

"It is most important that we caught them having contact with agents and funding a number of nonprofit organizations," Col. Sergei Ignatchenko, a spokesman for the FSB, the domestic successor of the KGB, told the Russian news agency Interfax on Monday. "We are investigating the goals of this funding."

The nongovernmental organizations named in the probe said the broadcast was a smear designed to bolster the case for using a new law to crack down on grass-roots organizations, particularly those that challenge the Kremlin's record on human rights and democracy.

In London, the British Foreign Office said in a statement that "we reject any allegation of improper conduct in our dealing with Russian NGOs. It is well known that the UK government has financially supported projects implemented by Russian NGOs in the field of human rights and civil society. All our assistance is given openly and aims to support the development of a healthy civil society in Russia."

Prime Minister Tony Blair declined to comment on the spying allegations. Asked about them at his regular monthly news conference, he said: "I'm afraid you are going to get the old stock-in-trade 'We never comment on security matters' . . . except when we want to, obviously.

"I think the less said about that, the better.''

The program identified the man handling the funds as Marc Doe, a second secretary in the political affairs section of the British Embassy. Russian activists said he is known as a point man in the embassy for legal British funding of nongovernmental groups.

Among the groups receiving money through him, the FSB said Monday, were the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization that dates to Soviet times; the Committee against Torture; the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights; and Penal Reform International.

Most of the organizations have been underwritten by foreign governments and foundations for years, and the grants are legal and a matter of public record. Leaders of nongovernmental groups here say they would not survive without such funding because Russians, particularly in recent years, are reluctant to sponsor anything that might be seen as opposed to Kremlin policies.

A new law on such groups, signed by President Vladimir Putin this month, is designed to prevent foreign money from corrupting the Russian political system, according to its authors. Critics of the law, calling it a tool to pressure or shut down groups that the authorities oppose, see it as part of a broad attack on democratic institutions in Russia under Putin.

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