The Soviet government charges Anatoly Shcharansky, a leader among Jewish dissidents and human rights activists in Russia, with the crime of treason. The action was viewed by many in the West as a direct challenge to President Jimmy Carter's new foreign policy emphasis on human rights and his criticism of Soviet repression.
Shcharansky, a 29-year-old computer expert, had been a leading figure in the so-called "Helsinki group" in the Soviet Union. This group came into existence in 1975, after the signing of the European Security Act. The European Security Act, also referred to as the Helsinki Accords, was the result of U.S. and Soviet efforts to reinvigorate the spirit of dÝtente. The two nations called 35 other countries together to discuss a variety of topics, and the final agreements signed at the meeting included guidelines for human rights. Although the Soviets signed the act, Jewish dissidents in Russia complained that their rights continued to be violated, particularly their right to emigrate. These Jewish dissidents and other human rights activists in the Soviet Union came together to form the Helsinki group, which was designed to monitor Russian respect of the 1975 act. Shcharansky was one of the best known of this group, particularly because of his flair for sparking public interest in human rights violations in Russia. President Carter used the situation of Russian Jews as an example of the human rights violations he wished to curtail when he came into office in 1977. The Soviets responded with a series of arrests of Helsinki group leaders and the deportation of others. Shcharansky, the most vociferous of the group, came in for the harshest treatment. In June 1977, he was charged with treason, specifically with accepting funds from the CIA in order to create dissension in the Soviet Union. After a perfunctory trial, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison. He was finally released in February 1986, when he and four other prisoners were exchanged for four Soviet spies who had been held in the West.
Shcharansky's arrest and imprisonment elicited a good deal of criticism from the American people and government, but the criticism seemed merely to harden the Soviet position. It was not until after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985, promising a freer political atmosphere in the Soviet Union, that Shchransky and other political dissidents, such as Andrei Sakharov, were freed from prison and internal exile. Despite the relatively freer atmosphere of the Gorbachev years, members of the Helsinki group, as well as other Soviet dissidents, continued to press for greater democratic freedom and human rights right up to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.