Soviet authorities yesterday summoned two American correspondents to appear before a judge for defying a court order to publish retractions of their articles, which had been judged slanderous.
As the deadline for the retractions expired yesterday, Craig Whitney of The New York Times was served with a summons to appear in Judge Lev Almazov's court today for a bearing. A court official also attempted to deliver a summons to Harold Piper of The Baltimore Sun, who is currently vacationing in the United States.
Whitney, 34, and Piper, 39, were convicted of civil slander and defamation of Soviet state television last month and ordered to publicly retract their reports, in which they quoted friends of dissidents as saying that a televised confession of an imprisoned dissident had been faked. The two were also ordered to pay $1,675 each in court costs.
Editors of The Times and The Sun deplored the verdict and announced that they would refuse to print retractions. The Sun, however, expressed readiness to pay court costs. The Times has not announced its position, but its editors reportedly are considering paying the court costs under protest.
After receiving the summons, Whitney said he had no intention of appearing in court today. He said he had consulted a Soviet attorney. David Akselbandt, and was advised that the request need not be answered.
Today's scheduled hearing is believed to have been called to allow Almazor to impose fines of 50 rubles ($85) for failure to meet the deadline for retractions. Under Soviet statutes, Almazov can set a new deadline and keep imposing fines on the two journalists up to a total of 300 rubles ($430).
Beyond that point the law is murky and there is no precedent.
Diplomatic sources here believe that the suit against the two reporters, which was brought by a Soviet government agency, is primary designed to keep pressure on the two papers and other foreign correspondents here. Its aim, according to these sources, is to discourage Western Journalists from contacting dissidents and writing articles about their struggles against the authorities.
In a related move, also apparently designed to keep the pressure on the Americans here, Soviet police yesterday called U.S. businessman Francis Jay Crawford in for questioning at Lefortovo Prison for the second time in three days and said he may be called called in again. He is charged with violating Soviet currentcy laws.
Crawford, who is a representative of International Harvester here, was questioned for five hours at the prison Monday. He was arrested in June and held for two weeks before being released in the custody of U.S.
Ambassador Malcolm Toon. The release was part of a deal involving a similar release of two Soviet citizens accused of spying in the United States. Crawford and the Soviets must still stand trial for the charges.
Both Crawford and the two Russians are barred from leaving the countries in which they were held. Crawford's arrest is said to have been made in retaliation for the arrests of the two Soviet employes of the United Nations, who were caught allegedly attempting to buy U.S. defense secrets.
Although charges against Crawford carry a maximum of eight years in a labor camp, the Russians have little levcrage against the two American journalists short of expelling them from the Soviet Union. If they do that senior American officials have indicated that Washington would take retaliatory steps against more than two Soviet journalists in the United States.
Moreover, according to legal sources consulated here, the suit brought by the State Committee on Television and Radio, a government department, was on shaky grounds even within Soviet law.
In cases of slander and defamation, under Soviet law, the authors of the articles in question and their editors in the United States should be made codetendations. This legal requirement was violated because the editors of The Times and The Sun were not included in the suit. The reporters also challenged the court's jurisdiction over material distributed outside the Soviet Union.
Jude Almazov said he was confident that "on the very last year" the newspapers would do "something" to avoid the confrontation.
"I didn't think a correspondent would break the law, it somehow doesn't seem fitting," he said.
Western correspondents here seem to be in general agreement that the action against Whitney and Piper has ominous implications and could set a precedent restricting their ability to report about the Soviet Union.