A Soviet jugde fined two American correspondenis $35 each yesterday for failing to publish retractions or articles deemed slanderous. He ordered them to do so within five days, warning that "different measures" would be taken should they fail to comply.
Judge Lev Almazov acted after a Soviet attorney for Craig Whitney of The New York Times and Harold Piper of The Baltimore Sun informed the court that the two Americans intend to comply with a part of Almazov's original ruling and pay $1,625 each in court costs.
But the jouralists and their newspapers have already announced that they will not print retractions.
After fining Whitney and Piper and settling a new deadline Almazov said: "This is going to be the last time and if they don't comply we will have to take different measures."
This warning raised the possibility of a confrontation that could have adverse reprecussions in the broad spectrum of US-Soviet relations.
The two correspondents were convicted of civil "slander and defamation" of Soviet state television last month because they quoted dissident sources as saying that a televised confession of an imprisoned Georgian dissident was faked.
The dissdent, Zviad gamsakburdia, 39, was brought from prison to the reporters' trial last month and testified that his confession was genuine.
Western journalists here speculated that Soviet authorities would use their legal machinery to keep pressure on the two American newspapers for some time. The judge has the power to keep setting new deadlines for retractions and imposing fines up to a total of S430.
From a legal point of view the suit brought by a Soviet government agency is on somewhat shaky ground. Soviet attorneys have advised the times that in cases such as this the law requires that both the authors of the articles in question and their editors, who control what is published, be defenants.
Almazov, in an interview after yesterday's hearing, was asked about the apparent violation of this requirement in the case against Whitney and Piper. He replied that the editors of the Times and the Sun could not be defendants because they live in the United States. "We do not have jurisdiction over them," he said.
Legal niceties aside, the case against Whitney and Piper is viewed by senior diplomats here as being primarily political in character and designed to discourage Western coverage of dissident activities in the Soviet Union.
The case will have to be resolved at the political level because the court lacks the power to expel the journalists and because there is no precedent for a further legal action once the maximum in fines has been imposed.
It is conceivable that senior Soviet officials will choose a conciliatory course.
Americans here have pointed out to Soviet officials that the Times, the Sun and much of the rest of the American press have publicized Gamsakhurdia's statement at a court hearing July 18 that his televised confession was genuine.
This, coupled with payment of the court costs is based largely on the fact that the court can force them to pay. During yesterday's hearing Almazov raised the possibility of confiscating property that Whitney and Piper have in Moscow to collect the costs.
Whitney, 34, who received a summons, did not appear in court yesterday. His colleague in the Times hureau, David Shipler, attended the session with other Western journalists. Piper, 39, is in the United States.
After the hearing, Whitney said that he would pay the required sum for himself and Piper "in the hopes of disposing of this case and discouraging a repetition of similar tactics against other correspondents in the future."
He said he believes it would be "futile to engage in court battles which I would not be permitted to win," and added: "I am making the payment under protest and I make no admission that the charges against me have any basis in fact."
This stand is endorsed by virtually all Western journalists here. They think the case could set a dangerous percendent for future newsgathering activities in the Soviet Union.
Soviet decisions regarding the resolution of the case will undoubtedly be based on an assessment of its effect on Soviet-American relations.
Western journalists, especially Americans, have always been viewed with suspicion for their vigorous coverage of dissident activities. President Carter's human rights policies have encouraged dissent here, according to knowledgable Soviet sources, and Western Journalists have become even more dangerous in Soviet eyes because they are believed to spread news about violations of human rights and to provide encouragement for those opposed to the government's policies.