Writers, journalists and activists in Russia continue to be routinely intimidated and judicially harassed. They are often imprisoned on trumped-up charges. The increasing use of antiterror legislation to silence journalists is particularly alarming. On 6 February this year, Svetlana Prokopyeva, a reporter for Radio Svoboda and the Pskov branch of Radio Ekho Moskvy, had her flat raided by masked police. Her phones, computers and files were seized and she was taken to a local police station, interrogated and then released. That same day, police officers searched the premises of Radio Ekho Moskvy and took files from her computer there.
In July, Prokopyeva was placed on Russia’s list of ‘terrorists and extremists’, her bank accounts were blocked and her passport was confiscated. In August, she filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that the police search of her apartment violated the confidentiality of her sources. On 20 September, she was charged with ‘justifying terrorism’ under Article 205.2 of the Russian Criminal Code, a charge that could see her sentenced to up to seven years in prison. A date for her hearing has yet to be set. The case against Prokopyeva stems from comments she made on Radio Ekho Moskvy on 7 November 2018. Discussing a seventeen-year-old boy who had detonated a bomb inside the offices of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in the Russian city of Arkhangelsk, she argued that growing up in a repressive state could be a factor in radicalising young people.
On 1 October, Prokopyeva issued an open letter in which she denied the accusations against her and denounced ‘the murder of freedom of speech’. Journalists and media outlets reporting on her prosecution have also been harassed: in February, Radio Ekho Moskvy and the local news website Pskovskaya Lenta Novostei received fines of 150,000 roubles and 200,000 roubles respectively (approximately £1,800 and £2,400) for publishing Prokopyeva’s remarks online. Subsequently, the editors of both media outlets were asked by the police to sign a non-disclosure agreement prohibiting them from talking about the interrogation and effectively stopping them from writing about Prokopyeva’s case.
In December 2016, Yuri Dmitriev, a 63-year-old historian and head of the Karelian branch of the human rights centre Memorial, was arrested and charged with making pornographic images of his adopted daughter under Article 242.2 of the Russian Criminal Code and possessing an illegal firearm. He denied the charges, arguing that the purpose of the photographs was to monitor the health of the child for social services. He spent more than a year in pre-trial detention. Human rights groups claim that the case against Dmitriev is fabricated and politically motivated, and he has the vocal support of many famous Russians. They believe that he is being punished for his work unearthing the truth about the Stalin-era purges. The Russian authorities have repeatedly targeted Memorial and, since 2014, have regarded the centre as a ‘foreign agent’. Dmitriev faces up to twenty years in prison if convicted.
Dmitriev has spent many years documenting the execution sites of Stalin’s purges and identifying victims for Memorial. He played a crucial role in the discovery and investigation of the killing fields Sandarmokh and Krasny Bor, and their subsequent transformation into memorial complexes. In recent years the Russian authorities have sought to glorify the Soviet past: Vladimir Putin stated in 2017 that the ‘excessive demonisation of Stalin is one of the ways to attack the Soviet Union’.
On 5 April last year, the Petrozavodsk City Court cleared Dmitriev of child pornography charges but two months later the Karelian Supreme Court overturned his acquittal. Dmitriev was subsequently charged under Article 132.4 of the Russian Criminal Code (which refers to violent acts of a sexual nature in relation to a person who has not reached the age of fourteen) and underwent enforced psychiatric testing. The European Union issued a statement expressing concern that Dmitriev was being targeted because of his work for Memorial and calling for the Russian authorities to release him immediately and drop the charges against him. Instead, the criminal cases against Dmitriev were merged. The first hearing of the new case was held in Petrozavodsk on 19 October 2018. He remains in detention. PEN is awaiting trial dates for the two cases before calling for public appeals.
Update: on 4 November, Turkish author Ahmet Altan and journalist Nazlı Ilıcak (LR, April 2018) were released after more than three years’ detention. A court ordered the release of Altan and Ilıcak based on the time they had already served. Both had been convicted of ‘aiding a terrorist organisation’. No credible evidence was presented linking the defendants to terrorism and the case should never have gone to trial. Altan’s freedom was short-lived. Police detained the writer on 12 November at his home in Kadikoy, on Istanbul’s Asian side, acting on an arrest warrant issued after the chief public prosecutor appealed against the decision to release him. At the time of writing, Altan and three co-defendants – Fevzi Yazıcı, Yakup Simşek and Sükrü Tuğrul Ozşengül – remain in detention. PEN continues to call for their release and for the charges against them to be dropped.