French researcher admits military secrets charges, claims Russia

Laurent Vinatier, a researcher for a conflict mediation organisation, was arrested for breaching Russia’s ‘foreign agents’ law.

French national Laurent Vinatier
French national Laurent Vinatier, who allegedly collected information of 'military-technical nature that could be used to the detriment of the security' of Russia, during a court hearing in Moscow, June 7, 2024 [Maxim Shemetov/Reuters]

A French researcher has admitted to criminal charges related to collecting sensitive military information, Russian investigators have claimed.

Laurent Vinatier pleaded guilty during questioning to failing to register as a foreign agent while illegally collecting sensitive military information, the Investigative Committee of Russia said on Wednesday. The French researcher joined a list of Western citizens detained by Moscow when he was arrested by the Federal Security Service (FSB) last month.

“The French citizen has pleaded guilty in a criminal case on illegal collection of information in the field of Russian military activities,” the Investigative Committee said in a statement. “During the interrogation, he admitted his guilt in full.”

Potentially increasing Western concerns, the FSB then declared in a statement that Vinatier, who had worked long-term in Russia for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) NGO, had “collected information of a military and military-technical nature that could be used to the detriment of the security of the Russian Federation”.

The accusations against him could result in a sentence of five years in prison, according to reports.

‘Propaganda’

The 47-year-old researcher’s arrest came as tension rose between Moscow and Paris, with French President Emmanuel Macron calling for a hard line regarding the war in Ukraine.

Following the arrest, Macron insisted that the employee of the Swiss-based conflict mediation group HD had never worked for the French state and demanded his immediate release, calling the “propaganda” against him “does not match reality”.

However, a court last month placed him in pre-trial custody until August 5.

Russia has not charged or publicly accused Vinatier of working with any foreign intelligence agency or directly engaging in espionage.

However, authorities have previously arrested people for breaching the “foreign agents” law before charging them with more serious offences.

French national Laurent Vinatier
Laurent Vinatier, an adviser to the Swiss nonprofit Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, French national Laurent Vinatier, allegedly collected information of a ‘military-technical nature’, Moscow, June 7, 2024 [Maxim Shemetov/Reuters]

The Investigative Committee said seven witnesses from whom Vinatier had tried to collect military information had been questioned.

“A linguistic forensic examination has been scheduled based on audio recordings of these meetings,” the committee said in its statement.

In a statement following Vinatier’s arrest, HD said: “In the course of HD’s activities as an impartial and independent mediation organisation, our people work around the world and routinely meet with a wide range of officials, experts and other parties with the aim of advancing efforts to prevent, mitigate and resolve armed conflict.”

‘Hostage diplomacy’

Under Russian law, people who collect, report, or share information about Russia’s military or security services must register as “foreign agents”.

Critics say the legislation has been used to clamp down on dissent. Its use has also risen since the Kremlin launched its war on neighbouring Ukraine in February 2022.

US-Russian journalist Alsu Kurmasheva was arrested last year for failing to register as a “foreign agent”. More serious allegations of spreading false information about the armed forces have since been levelled against her.

Several other Western citizens have been arrested in Russia since the Ukraine war began, which has put relations at their lowest ebb since the midst of the Cold War.

US reporter Evan Gershkovich, who was arrested in March 2023 on espionage charges, went on trial behind closed doors last month. Several other US citizens have been arrested recently.

Among the higher profile detainments is that of US security executive Paul Whelan, who was arrested in Moscow for espionage in 2018. US-Russian citizen Ksenia Karelina was put on trial for high treason last month after donating $50 to a Ukrainian charity.

Russia has indicated that it is open to the idea of a prisoner exchange involving Gershkovich and others, claiming that contacts with the US have taken place.

The US has in turn accused Russia of conducting “hostage diplomacy”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies