British-Russian begins trial for violating Norwegian drone ban

AFP
AFP - [email protected] • 29 Nov, 2022 Updated Tue 29 Nov 2022 15:34 CEST
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A trial of a Russian-British man charged with flying a drone has started. Pictured is a drone being launched. Photo by Diana Măceşanu on Unsplash

Norway's justice system was weighing which nationality takes precedence in the trial Tuesday of a British-Russian man accused of violating a ban on Russians flying drones in the nordic nation.

The son of a former close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, 47-year-old Andrei Yakunin, wearing a dark suit, pleaded not guilty as he
appeared before the Tromso court in northern Norway.

He is accused of flying drones over the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic, during a trip on his yacht Firebird last summer.

Non-EU member Norway banned Russian aircraft and drones from flying over its territory following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

Norway, now Europe's main supplier of natural gas, has been on high alert since mysterious unmanned aircraft were spotted near strategic sites, including oil and gas platforms far offshore, over the past few weeks.

"At no time will we state that the defendant has engaged in any form of espionage or that he has acted on behalf of Russian intelligence," prosecutor
Kristin Rohne told the court in her opening remarks, according to newspaper Verdens Gang (VG).

"There is no evidence of that. But we believe that regulations must be applied, also in a case like this," she added.

Described as a lover of nature and extreme sports, Andrei Yakunin admitted to flying a drone to document his trip to Svalbard -- the photos and videos seized attest to this -- but he rejected the charges against him. His lawyers pointed to his British citizenship -- which their client obtained in 2015.

"Flying a recreational drone as a British citizen in Svalbard is not criminal," Bernt Heiberg, one of his lawyers, told AFP.

Yakunin, a wealthy businessman who left St. Petersburg in 2008 and is now established in Italy, only had "marginal" ties to his home country, according to the lawyer.

'Politically motivated'

In addition to the novelty from a legal standpoint, the case has garnered attention due to the family links, reputedly very close at one time, to the
Kremlin.

The father of the accused, Vladimir Yakunin, a former chairman of Russian Railways, has sometimes been described as a confidant of Putin, leading to him
being put on sanctions lists by several countries.

"Even though he is his father's son, I don't think that has any bearing on this concrete case," Heiberg said.

In an interview with broadcaster TV 2 last week, Andrei Yakunin said he himself had no direct connection with the Moscow strongman and stressed that
he had spoken out early against the war in Ukraine.

Detained since mid-October, he is not the only native of Russia to find himself in trouble with Norway's justice system.

Nearly a dozen Russians have been arrested in Norway in recent weeks for violating the flight ban or the ban on photographing sites deemed sensitive, as the country has heightened security around strategic infrastructure.

One of them, a Russian citizen who had left Russia to escape Putin's partial mobilisation order, was sentenced to 90 days in prison last week for
flying a drone "on several occasions" in the south of the country.

Another, arrested with two drones and three Russian and Israeli passports, was given a 120-day jail sentence on Tuesday, according to Norwegian media.

The arrests have also angered Moscow, which see them as "politically motivated."

On Monday, the Norwegian ambassador was summoned to the Russian foreign ministry, which called on Oslo to stop persecuting "Russian citizens on the basis of their nationality".

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AFP 2022/11/29 15:34

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