Nation/World

Foes of Russia say child pornography is planted to ruin them

CAMBRIDGE, England — His indomitable will steeled by a dozen years in the Soviet gulag, decades of sparring with the KGB and a bout of near fatal heart disease, Vladimir K. Bukovsky, a tireless opponent of Soviet leaders and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, is not a man easily put off his stride.

But he got knocked sideways when British police officers banged on the front door of his home on a sedate suburban street in Cambridge early one morning while he lay sick in bed and informed him that they had "received information about forbidden images" in his possession.

"It was all very bizarre and disturbing," Bukovsky said.

"This is not normally the language of a free society," he added, recalling how his old KGB tormentors used to hound him and his friends over texts and photographs declared forbidden by the Soviet authorities.

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The images sought by British police, however, had nothing to do with politics but involved child pornography, a shocking offense in any jurisdiction. The officers hauled away a clunky desktop computer from Bukovsky's study — a chaos of books and papers dusted with cigarette ash — and a broken computer from his garage.

In April last year, the veteran Soviet dissident, a onetime confidant of Margaret Thatcher, finally found out what was going on: The Crown Prosecution Service announced that he faced five charges of making indecent images of children, five charges of possession of indecent images of children and one charge of possession of a prohibited image.

The case was supposed to go to court in May in Cambridge but, after Bukovsky, 73, entered a not-guilty plea, it was delayed until Dec. 12. This followed a prosecution request for more time to review an independent forensic report on what had been found on Bukovsky's computers and how an unidentified third party had probably put it there.

"The whole affair is Kafkaesque," Bukovsky said in an interview. "You not only have to prove you are not guilty but that you are innocent."

He insisted that he was the victim of a new and particularly noxious form of an old KGB dirty trick known as kompromat, the fabrication and planting of compromising or illegal material.

Old-style kompromat featured doctored photographs, planted drugs, grainy videos of liaisons with prostitutes hired by the KGB, and a wide range of other primitive entrapment techniques.

Today, however, kompromat has become allied with the more sophisticated tricks of cybermischief-making, where Russia has proved its prowess in the Baltic States, Georgia, Ukraine and, according to U.S. intelligence officials, in the computers of the Democratic National Committee.

Russia's cyberwarriors serve a multitude of goals, including espionage, the disruption of vital infrastructure — as happened in Ukraine last year when nearly a quarter of a million people lost electricity after a cyberattack on three regional energy companies — the discrediting of foes and the shaping of public opinion through the spread of false information.

Hacking is not only a good way to get real information, like the emails of the DNC, but a relatively easy and usually untraceable way to plant fake information. For example, when unidentified hackers last year broke into the computers of a government research center in Lithuania, they stole nothing but planted bogus reports on its website that the country's stoutly pro-U.S. president had worked as an escort and KGB informer while a student in Leningrad during the Soviet era.

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Settling scores

The blurring of all boundaries between truth and falsehood in the service of operational needs has created a climate in Russia in which even the most serious and grotesque accusations, like those involving pedophilia, are simply a currency for settling scores. Bukovsky is far from the only one fending off such allegations.

Yoann Barbereau, the French director of the Alliance Française in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, has been struggling since early last year to defend himself against charges that he posted child pornography on a website for Russian mothers. His lawyers, pointing to evidence that his computer was tampered with after his arrest, believe that the material was planted by local security service officers to punish Barbereau for an extramarital romance with a woman connected to a powerful local official. In September, after months under house arrest, Barbereau fled.

Russia has denied any involvement in all of these incidents.

For the Kremlin's supporters, the verdict on Bukovsky is already in. On learning of the charges against him, Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of the state-funded television outlet RT, posted a sneering message on Twitter: "The Pedophile Plan: rape a child, sign up in the opposition, emigrate, expose the flaws of the motherland and all will be well. Or not."

The idea that Europeans and Russian opponents of the Kremlin are sexual deviants with a taste for pedophilia is a strange but recurring theme in Russian propaganda. The Russian ex-wife of a Norwegian man gained wide attention in state media, for example, with fabricated claims, made after she lost a child custody battle in Norway, that her former husband dressed their 4-year-old son in a "Putin costume" and raped him.

Foes of the Kremlin have sometimes picked up the same ugly club and used it to beat Putin, as did Alexander V. Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who died in London in 2006 from poisoning by a highly toxic radioactive isotope. Four months before his death, which a British inquiry ruled was probably state-sponsored murder approved by Putin, Litvinenko published an article that, without any evidence, asserted that the Russian president was a pedophile.

No matter what the court in Britain decides, Bukovsky has already had his reputation — and, by association, that of other Kremlin's critics — trashed in Russia.

Bukovsky complained that European countries that expect clarity and follow rigid procedures easily fall prey to the dirty tricks of a regime that excels in hiding its tracks and creating confusion.

"They are very good at using the West against the West," he said.

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