America Abandons a Friend

By E. Wayne Merry
Saturday, February 25, 2006

An obscure arms deal from nine years ago has produced a major human rights case in the former Soviet country of Moldova, challenging the U.S. government to stand up for its own good name as well as for the rule of law.

The case centers on the conviction Jan. 16 of the former Moldovan defense minister, Valeriu Pasat, and his sentence to 10 years in a hard-labor penal camp. Pasat's ostensible offense was to sell 21 MiG-29 fighter aircraft to the Pentagon in 1997 for $40 million. The prosecution alleged the planes were worth $55 million more and thus Pasat was guilty of malfeasance. The trial also implied that the United States had swindled Moldova in the transaction. These accusations are false.

I was the official in the Office of the Secretary of Defense most closely involved in the MiG purchase from its inception, on several occasions negotiating directly with Pasat in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau. Pasat was a stubborn and difficult interlocutor who prolonged the bargaining for months to gain more compensation for his country. In the event, the transaction was an entirely fair one for both sides. The additional $55 million supposedly available from another potential customer (widely identified as Iran) was phantom money, something understood by all responsible Moldovan officials engaged in the matter. In fact, some in the U.S. government believed we overpaid for the aging aircraft. In any case, the final decision on the Moldovan side was made at the political level by the country's president and prime minister, not by Pasat.

The facts of the case were made available to the Moldovan court by the person who was U.S. ambassador in Chisinau at the time and by me, in legal depositions that were cleared by the State Department and, in my case, by the Pentagon. But the secret Moldovan tribunal created for this trial refused to admit these depositions or any factual evidence favorable to the defendant. All proceedings were conducted with minimal legal accommodation for Pasat. On their face, the verdict and sentence are scandalous and redolent of Soviet political trials at their worst.

The true essence of this case is that Pasat, at the time of his arrest, was employed by the Russian Unified Energy Systems company and was also an active member of the domestic political opposition to the present Communist Party government in Moldova. I have been involved with Moldova in various capacities for over 20 years and consider Pasat to be a political prisoner and a hostage in the energy disputes between Chisinau and Moscow. Whatever sympathy and support Western countries might tender toward Moldova in its unequal contest with Russia should be tempered by recognition of the Soviet-style abuse of judicial power employed in this case.

In time Pasat may find justice from the European Court of Human Rights, which would at least consider the publicly available evidence. But in that time he might suffer irreparable damage to his health -- already poor -- from the conditions of his hard-labor imprisonment.

Moldova considers itself an ultimate candidate for membership in the European Union. At minimum, then, European governments should intervene with Chisinau in support of the basic standards of human rights and civil protections required of any country seeking inclusion in Europe.

Thus far the United States has walked by on the other side in this shameful affair. Neither the State Department nor the Defense Department has spoken out on behalf of Pasat -- once an honored guest here of then-Defense Secretary William Cohen. This may be so in part because the MiG purchase was conducted by the previous administration and in part because Washington correctly supports Chisinau against Moscow on the matter of the secessionist Transnistria region of eastern Moldova.

But this silence makes a mockery of the administration's supposed support for the rule of law in former Soviet states. It gives implicit confirmation to the notion that we defrauded a poor country in an arms transaction. And, finally, it communicates to similar officials in other countries that if they deal with the United States in good faith -- as Pasat did -- and the domestic political landscape changes, Washington will wash its hands of its former partners.

This case is not only about civil liberties and justice in Moldova; it is also about the honor of the United States.

The writer is a former State Department and Pentagon official and is now a senior associate of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.

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