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Ukrainian KGB Brings Charges Against Scientist

19 November 1999 6:00 pm
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A Ukrainian scientist accused of selling off to the West "a national treasure"--an archive on plankton biodiversity--was formally charged on Wednesday with illegal currency operations. A conviction could torpedo millions of dollars in research support to Ukrainian scientists from the European Union.

Last month agents of the Ukrainian security bureau (SBU) raided the homes and offices of Sergey Piontkovski and two colleagues at the Institute of Biology of the Southern Seas (IBSS) in Sevastopol, seizing everything from computers and scientific papers to their money and passports (Science, 29 October, p. 879). The investigation soon narrowed to two grants--one from the British government and another from a European Union agency called INTAS that supports former Soviet scientists--that involve analyzing and digitizing data on plankton collected by Soviet, Russian, and Ukrainian ocean expeditions. A fourth IBSS scientist has since come under scrutiny.

The SBU laid out its case in the 16 November edition of the newspaper Slava Sevastopolya, alleging that grant money ended up in bank accounts owned by Piontkovski in the United Kingdom and the United States, rather than in a Ukrainian account as stipulated under an agreement between INTAS and the Ukrainian government. The article declared that unnamed experts had valued the marine databases at IBSS and the Marine Hydrophysical Institute in Sevastopol at more than $200 million, suggesting that the transfer of this data to the West amounted to a rip-off. "I've been trying to explain to SBU agents that countries invest millions into getting data, but the data themselves are free for scientific exchange," says Piontkovski, who was hauled into the SBU office for another 12 hours of questioning on the day he was charged. He denies that any grant money ended up in personal accounts; some INTAS funds were sent through an intermediate account in the United States, Piontkovski says, but that, he says, was simply an INTAS-approved buffer against volatile exchange rates in Ukraine.

Piontkovski says he faces up to 5 years in prison, and expects the SBU to bring lesser charges against at least one of his colleagues. A trial could begin as soon as January. However, says an INTAS spokesperson, if the case is "not fully resolved by mid-January," when the organization holds its annual meeting, "there will be consequences"--perhaps even the suspension of its operations in Ukraine. "Unless there are facts unknown to INTAS," says director David Gould, Piontkovski's actions have neither harmed Ukraine's security interests or broken any agreements between his organization and the Ukrainian Government.