A Russian court on Monday sentenced a former journalist to 22 years in a maximum security prison on two counts of treason, indicating a new level of repression against the free press in Russia and sparking a protest in the press community.
Ivan Safronov, 32, a former defense correspondent for Kommersant and Vedomosti newspapers, was arrested in July 2020 on his way to work in Moscow and accused of revealing state secrets to representatives of foreign intelligence services.
Two months before his arrest, he quit his job in the media to become an advisor to the head of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, but the agency said the charges related to his work as a journalist.
The severity of the sentence – which was announced in a statement to the Basmani court in Moscow – provoked an angry reaction.
On Tuesday, Kommersant newspaper – where Mr. Safronov started his career and became a stellar defense reporter – boldly chose to print e-mail of support for Mr. Safronov on its front page, saying that its employees “remember every day that they can’t help.”
“We have not heard any public evidence of your guilt,” said the letter addressed to Mr. Safronov’s current residence in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison. “We are confident: in any other situation, you will be acquitted,” the letter read.
“We are waiting for you,” she added.
The daily Kommersant, which strove to become a standard Russian newspaper, is owned by Alisher Usmanov, a businessman with connections to the Kremlin. The newspaper drew a fine line between maintaining a degree of independence and avoiding the fate of other Russian publications that were shut down under political pressure from the government.
In a top-secret case, Russian prosecutors said Mr. Safronov disclosed state secrets about Russian arms sales to a journalist who worked for the Czech Republic’s foreign intelligence arm, according to his lawyer. He was also accused of sharing unspecified secrets about Russia’s involvement in the war in Syria with a political scientist from Germany, according to his lawyer, Ivan Pavlov.
Mr. Safronov denied the accusations, saying that his reports relied on information obtained only from publicly available sources. His lawyer said he refused to enter into a deal with the prosecution.
The ruling caused chills in the Russian press community, which has been under intense pressure since the government banned publication of anything that deviated from the Kremlin’s line about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Yevgeny Smirnov, another member of Mr. Safronov’s legal team, said the case had had a “tremendous cooling effect” on journalists in Russia, particularly those covering defense and the military-industrial complex, and that Mr. Safronov’s defense team would file an appeal.
Smirnov said the defense team believed that apart from trying to send a message to Russian journalists, the government was seeking revenge against Mr. Safronov for revealing Russian plans to sell fighter jets to Egypt. Soon after Mr. Safronov published an article in 2019 about the $2 billion deal, the United States threatened to impose sanctions on Cairo.
Mr. Smirnov and Mr. Pavlov fled Russia in 2021 after being implicated in the Mr. Safronov case. The third lawyer, Dmitriy Talantov, was arrested in June and charged with spreading false information about the Russian military.
At the end of 2020, President Vladimir Putin said that Mr. Safronov’s case had nothing to do with his journalistic work and that no one could be accused of treason for using publicly available information.
“It can’t be allowed,” he said.
Pavel Chekhov, a Russian human rights lawyer, said he found no precedent for such a harsh sentence on charges like Mr. Safronov, calling it “a clearly brutal and cruel punishment, consistent with Russia’s current situation”.
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