Journalist Ivan Safronov sentenced to 22 years in Russian prison for treason

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RIGA, Latvia — A Russian court has sentenced former investigative journalist Ivan Safronov to 22 years in prison for treason, a grim resolution to one of the most high-profile prosecutions of a journalist in Russia in years.

The harsh sentence is just the latest episode in Russia’s crackdown on media and freedom of expression that has shut down almost all independent media outlets in the country and imposed tough regulations on coverage of the ongoing conflict in neighboring Ukraine. .

Safronov was arrested in July 2020 and has been in pre-trial detention ever since. Investigators from the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service, accused him of passing state secrets to German and Czech agents between 2015 and 2017, when he was a military and space reporter for the Kommersant business daily. . The trial was held behind closed doors and the evidence was not made public.

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Safronov’s supporters say the FSB amplified the charges in retaliation for his journalistic work focusing on secret deals on the Russian arms trade and exposing the misadventures of the country’s Defense Ministry.

In a clip from the courtroom, published by Rain TV, Safronov’s supporters cheered and chanted “Freedom! after the verdict was delivered. “I love you,” Safronov replied before being ushered out of the courtroom cage.

A leaked indictment, published by Russian investigative outlet Proekt, suggests that documents Safronov allegedly obtained from “persons with access to state secrets” and passed to Western intelligence services were in the public domain.

According to Proekt, Safronov agreed to contribute to a publication that employed his friend, Czech national Martin Larysh, and later wrote for political analyst Dmitry Voronin, who worked for a German-Swiss consulting firm. Analytical exhibits Safronov sent to Larysh and Voronin, whom the FSB accuses of being Czech and German agents respectively, formed the basis of the indictment against him.

Proekt says the information in Safronov’s articles was already available in Kommersant, a number of Russian and international media, the state news agency RIA Novosti and on the Russian Defense Ministry website.

The report also notes that during the preliminary investigation, Safronov unsuccessfully requested that prosecutors allow him access to a computer so that he could extract allegedly classified information from online sources.

“It is clear to us that the reason for the persecution of Ivan Safronov is not ‘treason’, which is not supported by anything, but his journalistic work and the articles he published without holding take into account the opinion of the Defense Ministry and Russian authorities,” Russian investigative newspaper Kholod said in a letter calling on Russian authorities to release the journalist.

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The prosecution initially requested 24 years in prison, just one year less than the maximum sentence. Safronov’s lawyer, Yevgeny Smirnov, said last week that moments before announcing their plea for sentencing, the prosecutor turned to the journalist and offered him a deal: if he pleads guilty, the sentence would be halved. Safronov refused.

Safronov’s career at Kommersant spanned a decade. He first joined the newspaper as an intern, but quickly rose through the ranks and became one of Russia’s most prominent correspondents covering the defense and space industries. His father, also named Ivan, worked for the same newspaper covering military affairs and died under mysterious circumstances after falling from a window of his building in Moscow.

Safronov’s friends and family told Proekt that he regularly received job offers from ministries and state-owned companies — often the same ones he covered — but turned them down to stick to the journalism.

In 2019, Safronov quit Kommersant after a scoop over the impending resignation of Russia’s parliament speaker, an apparent leak that angered officials, who pressured the paper to fire the journalist. Safronov then worked as an adviser to the head of Russian space company Roscosmos for a few months before his arrest.

Cases of state treason are rare in Russia, but are increasingly seen as a way for security services to pressure journalists, scientists and others researching sensitive government issues . Trials are always held behind closed doors and the grounds for prosecution are rarely made public.

Ivan Pavlov, who represented Safronov until Russian authorities accused him of leaking details of a preliminary investigation and forced him to flee the country, which once specialized in defending espionage and treason.

In a 2018 report, he wrote: “There are more and more ‘espionage’ cases in Russia every year, but very little is known about them, and when information comes out, it raises significant doubts. .

“[Charges] intended to punish foreign intelligence agents are applied to housewives, shop assistants, scientists and pensioners,” Pavlov said at the time. “Such cases are investigated and reviewed under a veil of secrecy, which makes it easy for law enforcement officers to violate the rights of the accused and generally make up cases at the improvised, for the spectacle. We tried to lift this veil.

Another Safronov lawyer, Dmitry Talantov, who succeeded Pavlov, was arrested on charges under Russia’s “false news laws” and faces up to 10 years in prison.

In another grim step for Russian media, one of Russia’s last independent outlets, Novaya Gazeta, was officially stripped of its media license on Monday, making it impossible for the newspaper to operate legally inside the country.

Novaya Gazeta, a key investigative media outlet established in 1993 and edited by Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov, ceased operations in March shortly after the start of the war in Ukraine after receiving warnings from Russia’s technology and media regulator. communications.

Some of its staff left Russia to launch a new publication, Novaya Gazeta Europe, but the regulator also banned its website in Russia.

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