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The trial of Walter Biot, a frigate captain of the Italian Navy accused of espionage for having given confidential documents to a Russian soldier stationed at the Rome embassy in exchange for money, has begun in the military court of Rome. Biot, who is detained in the military prison of Gaeta, was arrested in the act of crime on March 30, 2021 while, in a large parking lot in the Roman district of Spinaceto, he was handing a memory card to an officer of the Russian armed forces, Dmitrij Ostroukhov. . The card was contained in a medicine box. Similarly, in a package of drugs, the Russian military handed Biot 5 thousand dolars.
Biot is accused in two trials: one is the one held by the military judiciary, which has jurisdiction over military crimes committed by members of the armed forces. In a couple of weeks there will be another hearing before the Assize Court of the ordinary court. The defense lawyers of Biot, Roberto De Vita and Antonio Laudisa, raised the problem of the conflict between military and civil jurisdiction: all the documents have now been sent to the Court of Cassation which will have to decide on the conflict of jurisdiction. In practice, he will have to determine who is to try Walter Biot.
The Italian officer is accused by the ordinary prosecutor of espionage, disclosure of state secrets and corruption. Military prosecutors contest the crimes of obtaining secret information for the purpose of espionage, obtaining and disclosing information of a confidential nature, taking photographs for the purpose of espionage and communicating non-secret or confidential information abroad. According to the defense, these are two overlapping processes, and therefore «according to the principle of ne bis in idem (not twice for the same thing) there cannot be two trials for the same fact and concerning the same subject, with the risk that there will be two identical sentences », explains the lawyer Roberto De Vita. The Supreme Court must decide “whether the documents seized and kept secret so far concern a broader secret that endangers national security, and therefore falls within the competence of ordinary justice, or whether the rule that establishes that judging a military accused of a crime prevails both military justice ”.
In the meantime, however, the military court ordered the acquisition of all the material that the prosecutor, formulating the accusations, had indicated as the body of the crime and which had never been made available to the defense because it was classified as secret. These are the memory card, mobile phone and all other electronic devices seized from the accused. The court has now established the acquisition of the minutes of the material considered as evidence, because everything that is used by the prosecution to contest the crime must be made available to the Judge and to the parties if the state secrecy is not opposed. “We must therefore examine these tests, we must be able to carry out expert reports otherwise a fundamental principle of law is violated,” says De Vita.
The story of Walter Biot a year ago aroused much alarm in the top military and in the Italian secret services. It had been very easy for Biot to get hold of confidential material and then sell it to a foreign agent. With the invasion of Ukraine and the changed relations between Russia and Italy, new concerns have been added.
In the order validating the arrest, the judge for the preliminary investigations Antonella Minunni had spoken of “the criminal depth of the suspect who did not place any scruple in betraying the trust of the institution to which he belonged for the sole purpose of obtaining profits of a economic “. The investigating judge then underlined “the accurate methods of acting, with the insertion of the memory card inside the medicine leaflet as well as the fact that in the cell phones in his possession no appointments or contacts with the Russian agent emerge” .
The investigating magistrate also described it as alarming that Biot had been involved, “as part of his assignment, with the projection of the Italian defense assets in foreign operational theaters and also with NATO, EU and UN operations”. The court of liberty, which rejected the request for release presented by the defense lawyers, wrote of “activities detrimental to national security”. The court of liberty also explained that Biot was in possession of the Nulla Osta of secrecy (Nos) «Higher than expected» and that the news sold «fell between those classified as“ Nato Secret ”and“ Nato Confidential ”and“ Riservatissime ”».
When he was arrested on charges of military espionage, Biot was serving in the III Ward, theMilitary Policy and Planning office of the Defense Staff. One of the purposes of the office, as the Ministry of Defense itself explains on its website, is “to identify and submit to the Chief of Defense the technical-military problems, and the relative solutions, in matters of security policy and national defense “.
Among the tasks there are also those of «promoting the initiatives necessary for the start of international technical-military cooperation activities, preparing the related implementing measures and supervising the descending activities; elaborate general guidelines and legislation on civil defense and civil-military cooperation in the field of national defense “. In short, Biot had access to important and delicate material.
As an officer in the Navy, Walter Biot had long been on board destroyers and the aircraft carrier Garibaldi. He was a “fighter guide”, that is, the officer in charge of driving interceptor fighters. In 2008 he moved to the Navy General Staff, to the press office. From December 2010 to August 2015 he worked in the international section of Public Information of the Ministry of Defense. In the past, he had also been a member of the examining commission for the competition for pupil marshals of the Navy. He was in the Military Policy and Planning Office since 2015.
It was Aisi, the information and internal security agency, that is the secret services, that initiated the investigation into Biot. It has not been revealed whether this happened as a result of suspicions born in the Political office or, perhaps, after information from the Russian side. The fact is that the officer was put under control, followed in every move. He was filmed, through hidden cameras, while on 18, 23 and 25 March 2021 he photographed confidential documents on his computer monitor.
Aisi had previously involved the Ros, the Carabinieri Operational Department, which, checking Biot’s movements, had discovered the appointments that took place in a large parking lot in the Spinaceto district, not far from a Carrefour supermarket, between Biot itself and a ‘ other person. The latter, later identified as Ostroukhov, arrived at the appointment by public transport: she got off the subway at EUR and then took a bus. She always wore a blue cap with a visor. The Russian agent preceded Biot and checked that there were no suspicious presences in the parking lot. Then Biot arrived in her car. On the day of his arrest, he had used another car, and not the usual one in which the recording systems were installed. For this reason the Carabinieri del Ros decided to intervene.
Immediately after his arrest, Ostroukhov asserted his diplomatic immunity. Two days later he was expelled from Italy together with his direct superior, Alexei Nemudrov, head of the military office in Rome, formerly a high officer of the Russian Navy. Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio summoned the Russian ambassador Sergey Razov.
Di Maio then wrote on his Facebook profile:
“On the occasion of the summons to the ministry of the Russian ambassador in Italy, we sent the latter the firm protest of the Italian government and notified the immediate expulsion of the two Russian officials involved in this very serious affair. I thank our intelligence and all the state apparatuses that work every day for the security of our country ».
In an interview with Corriere della Sera Biot’s wife, the psychologist Claudia Carbonara, argued that her husband had no intention of “cheating his country,” but that he had given the Russians only the least he could give. Carbonara explained that her husband was desperate and worried about the future of the four children, “he was afraid of not being able to cope with the many expenses we have. The home economy. Because of Covid we have become impoverished ».
Many commentators considered that the amount paid by the Russians was too low for it to be really important material. The Corriere della Sera however, he wrote that Biot, in the past, had transmitted not only Italian documents but also material from NATO, thus putting at risk not only the security of Italy but also that of other countries. In reality, it has not been revealed which documents, hitherto kept secret, passed by Biot to the Russians.
On the request for indictment by the ordinary prosecutor it was written that Biot had to be tried because “he had obtained as a frigate captain of the Navy serving at the Defense Staff, for the purpose of political espionage, news that in the interest of state security had to remain secret and for having disclosed such news to a Russian diplomatic agent for a fee ”. The military prosecutors in turn spoke of the transfer of “news concerning the strength, preparation and military defense of the state, classified as secret or confidential.”
Now we will have to wait for the ruling of the Court of Cassation. The international situation, with the strong tension between the European Union and Russia, give the Biot trial further importance. If the officer were to be found guilty by ordinary justice of the crime provided for in the article 257 of the Criminal Code relating to political or military espionage risks a penalty of not less than 15 years. If the fact, as the article of the code states, “is committed in the interest of a State at war with the Italian State or if the fact has compromised the preparation or the war efficiency of the State, or military operations”, the the penalty is life imprisonment.