Journalist Ivan Safronov was sentenced to 22 years in prison for high treason


RIGA, Latvia – A Russian court has sentenced former investigative journalist Ivan Safronov to 22 years in prison for treason, a grim decision for one of the most notable trials of a journalist in Russia in years.

The harsh ruling is only the latest episode in Russia’s crackdown on media and freedom of expression that has shut down nearly all of the country’s independent media outlets and imposed strict reporting regulations on the ongoing conflict in neighboring Ukraine.

Safronov was arrested in July 2020, and has been in pretrial detention ever since. Investigators at the Russian secret service, the FSB, accused him of passing state secrets to German and Czech agents between 2015 and 2017, during his tenure as a reporter covering military affairs and the daily business space of Kommersant. The trial was held behind closed doors and the evidence was not made public.

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Safronov’s supporters say the FSB mobilized accusations in retaliation for his journalistic work that focused on secret deals on the Russian arms trade and exposed the unfortunate incidents of the country’s Defense Ministry.

In a clip from the courtroom broadcast by the Al-Matar TV channel, Safronov supporters applauded and chanted “Freedom!” After the ruling. “I love you,” replied Safronov, before being taken out of the courtroom cage.

A leaked indictment, published by the Russian Investigative Agency Proekt, states that materials allegedly obtained by Safronov from “people with access to state secrets” and transferred to Western intelligence were in the public domain.

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According to Proekt, Safronov agreed to contribute to a publication that employed his friend, Czech citizen Martin Larich, and later wrote to political analyst Dmitriy Voronin, who worked for a German-Swiss consulting firm. Analytical pieces sent by Safronov to Larish and Voronin, whom the FSB accuses of being Czech and German agents, respectively, were the basis of the indictment against him.

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

The report also notes that during the pre-trial investigation, Safronov unsuccessfully requested that prosecutors allow him access to a computer so that he could pull allegedly classified information from sources on the Internet.

“It is clear to us that the reason for the persecution of Ivan Safronov is not” treason “which is not supported by anything, but rather his journalistic works and articles that he published without taking into account the opinion of the Ministry of Defense and the Russian Federation. Khulud said in a letter calling on the Russian authorities to release the journalist.

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Prosecutors 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 the announcement of the sentencing request, the prosecutor turned to the journalist and offered him a deal: if he pleaded guilty, the term would be halved. Safronov refused.

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

Safronov’s friends and family told Proekt that he regularly received job offers from ministries and government companies – often covering them – but refused them to commit to journalism.

In 2019, Safronov left Kommersant newspaper after a news story about the upcoming resignation of the speaker of the Russian parliament, an apparent leak that angered officials, who pressured the newspaper to dismiss the journalist. Safronov then worked as an advisor to the head of the Russian state space company, Roscosmos, for a few months before his arrest.

Cases of state betrayal are rare in Russia, but it is increasingly seen as a way for security services to pressure journalists, scientists and other individuals looking into sensitive government matters. Trials are always held behind closed doors and the reasons for prosecutions are rarely made public.

Ivan Pavlov, who represented Safronov until Russian authorities accused him of disclosing details from an initial investigation and forced him to flee the country, having specialized in defending cases of espionage and treason.

In a 2018 report, he wrote: “There are more and more cases of” espionage “in Russia every year, but little is known about them, and when the information appears, it raises great suspicion.”

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“[Charges] “Punishment of foreign intelligence officers is meant to be applied to housewives, water sellers, scientists and pensioners,” Pavlov said at the time. “Such cases are investigated and considered under a veil of secrecy, making it easier for law enforcement officers to infringe the rights of defendants and surprisingly invent cases for presentation. We tried to lift this veil.”

Another of Safronov’s lawyers, Dmitry Talantov, who took the position from Pavlov, has been detained on charges under Russia’s “fake news laws” and faces up to 10 years in prison.

In another terrible sign of Russian media, which is one of the last independent Russian media, Novaya Gazetawas officially stripped of its media license on Monday, making it impossible for the newspaper to operate legally within the country.

Novaya Gazeta, a major investigative outlet founded 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 the Russian technology and communications regulator.

Some of its employees have left Russia to launch a new publication, Novaya Gazeta Europe, but the organizer has also banned its website in Russia.

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