MOSCOW — A former journalist was convicted of treason and handed a 22-year prison sentence on Monday after a trial that has been widely seen as politically motivated and marked a new step in a sweeping crackdown on the media and Kremlin critics.
Ivan Safronov was an Ivan Safronov journalist who covered military affairs for Kommersant, before becoming an adviser at Roscosmos.
A few friends and co-workers of Safronov who attended Monday’s hearing at the Moscow City Court chanted “Freedom!” and clapped after the verdict was read.
“I love you all!” Safronov told those who came to support him.
Safronov, who was accused of passing military secrets on to Czech intelligence agents and one German citizen, was arraigned. He insists on his innocence. He argued that he obtained all of the information from open source sources in his journalistic work, and that nothing was illegal.
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In his final statement at the trial last week, Safronov rejected the charges as “absurd,” noting that he published all the information he gathered from his sources in government agencies and military industries.
He stated that he did not have access to classified documents. Furthermore, he stressed the fact that the investigators had failed to present any witnesses to support his espionage accusations.
Safronov described the long sentence requested by prosecutors as “monstrous,” saying that it would stain the country’s image by showing that a journalist is sentenced simply for doing his job. He quickly appealed against the sentence.
Many Russian journalists and human rights activists have pushed for Safronov’s release, maintaining that the authorities may have wanted to take revenge for his reporting that exposed Russian military incidents and shady arms deals.
Ivan Safronov (an adviser to Russia’s head of state space corp) stands in a cage inside a Moscow courtroom, Russia on July 16, 2020.
AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko
Hours before the ruling was announced by the Moscow City Court, 15 independent Russian media outlets issued a joint statement demanding Safronov’s release.
“It is obvious to us that the reason for persecuting Ivan Safronov is not ‘treason,’ which hasn’t been substantiated … but his work as a journalist and stories he published without any regard for what the Defense Ministry or Russian authorities think,” the statement read.
Amnesty International denounced Safronov’s conviction and sentencing as a travesty of justice and demanded that Russian authorities quash them.
“The absurdly harsh sentence meted out to Ivan Safronov symbolizes the perilous reality faced by journalists in Russia today,” Natalia Prilutskaya, the group’s Russia researcher, said in a statement. “It also exposes the failings of the Russian justice system and the impunity enjoyed by state agencies, who routinely fabricate cases with little or no evidence to support them.”
She added that Safronov “was tried solely for his journalistic work,” adding that “his only ‘crime’ was collecting information from open sources and being acquainted with and befriending foreigners.”
The European Union on Monday also urged Russian authorities to drop all charges against Safronov and “release him without any conditions,” denouncing “systematic repressions of the regime against independent journalism.”
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The Kremlin has remained unperturbed, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, refusing to comment on the case in a conference call with reporters.
Since his July 2020 Moscow arrest, Safronov was in police custody.
Recent Russian treason charges against journalists, rights activists, scientists, corporate officers and other officials have made it hard for them to defend themselves due to secrecy around their cases, as well as a lack in public access.
Safronov’s father also worked for Kommersant, covering military issues after retiring from the armed forces. After falling through a window from his Moscow apartment, he was killed in 2007.
However, investigators found that he was guilty of murder, though some Russian media outlets doubted the official account, as they suspected that he intended to publish a confidential report on secret weapons deliveries to Iran or Syria.
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