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Svetlana Prokopyeva

Contributor, RFE/RL’s Russian Service

On March 16, Russian journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva was formally handed an indictment document, charging her with publicly justifying terrorism. Prokopyeva, a freelance contributor to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Russian Service and a reporter for Echo of Moscow, denies the charges and claims the case is an attempt by Russia to curtail freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Prokopyeva’s case has attracted international media attention and criticism for its alleged unjust charges. Media-freedom organizations such as the European Federation of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have condemned the case. Prokopyeva was convicted on July 3.

Her trial was slated to begin on April 20 and was scheduled to be closed-door but was postponed for two months due to coronavirus concerns. Human Rights Watch reports that the case file is 12 volumes and the indictment against Prokopyeva is 99 pages long. Prokopyeva faced seven years in prison if she were found guilty. The Second Western District Military Court in Pskov on July 3 ordered her to pay 500,000 rubles, or $6,980, in fines.

In a July 6 statement, the Committee to Protect Journalists said CPJ was relieved Prokopyeva will avoid jail time, convicting a journalist of ‘justifying terrorism’ for simply expressing views shows how little tolerance Russian authorities have toward dissent.”

The charges against Prokopyeva stemmed from a November 2018 commentary that she provided on the Pskov affiliate of Echo of Moscow, a Russian radio station. During the segment, the Russian journalist discussed a then-recent bombing incident that occurred outside of the Federal Security Service offices in the city of Arkhangelsk. According to Russian media outlets, the suspect was a teenager who died in the bombing and had posted accusations on social media that the FSB falsified criminal cases. In the segment, Prokopyeva spoke about how the harsh political climate under Russian President Vladimir Putin restricts political activism and drives people to despair.

During the segment, Prokopyeva said the following:

“And now, 150 years later, in a democratic state that has elections and a multi-party system, where freedom of speech is proclaimed, and where, in seconds, one can reach many millions with one’s ideas and demands, a dissatisfied youth has once again built and detonated a bomb. A youth that was born and raised in Putin’s Russia saw no other way to make known to others his protest against torture and the fabrication of criminal cases.

This explosion, in my opinion, proves better than any political scientist’s opinion piece or any Human Rights Watch report that there are not in Russia the conditions for political activism. Despite the Constitution, hundreds of registered parties, and regular elections. All of this does not work – at least this is how it was seen by this young man who had something to say to those in power.”

In the months that followed, the Russian journalist was placed on the Federal Financial Monitoring Service’s list of extremists and terrorists. According to the Council of Europe, armed special forces raided Prokopyeva’s apartment in early February 2019, brought her in for interrogation and seized cell phones, laptop computers, and work documents. On the same day, local authorities conducted a “crime scene examination” at an Echo of Moscow station. Prokopyeva filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), claiming that the search and seizure endangered the confidentiality of her sources.

On October 7, 2019, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights asked the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Russia to closely monitor the case and ensure that Prokopyeva’s rights and freedoms are respected. And in a letter published by various independent Russian media outlets in the same month, Prokopyeva denounced the charges that she was justifying terrorism and wrote that she was only analyzing the terrorist attack.

“I consider this case to be just simple revenge on the part of the offended security agencies,” she wrote.

Last week, the European Federation of Journalists called for Russian authorities to drop the terrorism charges brought against her. Prokopyeva has received an outpouring of support from organizations and media outlets throughout the world. Most recently, a petition on Change.org demanding that the charges and criminal investigation into Prokopyeva be dropped has garnered over 153,000 signatures.

Executive Director of PEN Moscow Nadezhda Azhgikhina released a statement echoing calls for Russian authorities to drop all charges against Prokopyeva. The joint statement additionally called on officials to stop intimidating journalists who are reporting on her case. Local media outlets received fines of over 150,000 rubles for publishing her October letter.

“The case against Svetlana Prokopyeva can only be seen as an attempt to stifle free expression and intimidate journalists who seek to write the truth about today’s Russia,” Azhgikhina said. “We are appalled by the harassment of journalists and media outlets reporting on her prosecution. We call for an end to these intimidation tactics and for the full respect of the right to a free press.”