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How this Russian journalist could end up in prison “for justifying terrorism”

In the aftermath of a shocking bomb attack by a young man in northern Russia, this journalist tried to understand why he did it. In response, the state accused her of justifying terrorism.

Svetlana Prokopyeva
1 October 2019
Svetlana Prokopyeva
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Source: Facebook / Svetlana Prokopyeva

Today, a number of Russian media outlets - Echo Moscow, Takie Dela, 7x7, MediaZona and MBK Media - are publishing an open letter by journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva.

Prokopyeva, from Pskov, is accused of publicly justifying terrorism in connection with her coverage of the 2018 Arkhangelsk bomb attack. On 31 October that year, anarchist Mikhail Zhlobitsky, 17, set off explosives in a Federal Security Service (FSB) office, killing himself and injuring three law enforcement officers. Prior to the attack, Zhlobitsky wrote that he chose the FSB as a target because “it fabricates criminal cases and tortures people”. In the past year, several high-profile criminal cases concerning violent uprisings in Russia have emerged, with anarchist and anti-fascist defendants in one case reporting serious torture.

In an article after the event, Prokopyeva analysed the possible motives behind the attack in a radio broadcast. “In my opinion, this explosion shows - better than any column by a political scientist or a report by Human Rights Watch - that there are no conditions for political activism in Russia. Despite the Constitution, the hundreds of registered political parties and regular elections. None of this works - at least, this is what the young man, who had something to say to the authorities, saw.”

Svetlana Prokopyeva currently faces up to seven years in prison. We publish an unauthorised translation of her open letter below.

Mikhail Zhlobitsky | Source: TASS / Russian Investigative Committee

I (we?) am Svetlana Prokopyeva. I’m a journalist, and I could be put in prison for seven years for “justifcation of terrorism”.

Almost a year ago, a bomb went off in Arkhangelsk. The explosion was unexpected, shocking - 17-year-old Mikhail Zhlobitsky blew himself up in the entranceway to the Arkhangelsk FSB office. A few seconds before, he left a final message on Telegram. He wrote that he was going to blow himself up because “the FSB has gone f***ing crazy, fabricating cases and torturing people.”

This explosion in Arkhangelsk became the focus of my regular column on Echo Moscow in Pskov. “Acting with intent”, I wrote text for broadcast titled “Repressions for the state”. On 7 November, the programme was broadcast, and then a transcript was published on Pskov News Wire.

Nearly a month passed before Pskov News Wire and Echo Moscow received a warning from Roskomnadzor [Russia’s government communications regulator]. Our quasi-censor had found “signs of justifying terrorism” in my article. At the beginning of December, administrative charges were brought against the two media outlets, which cost them 350,000 roubles [£4,370] in fines. At the same time, the Pskov Investigative Committee opened an inspection under Article 205.2 of the Russian Criminal Code [“Public calls to carry out terrorist activity, public justification of terrorism or propaganda of terrorism”] against me personally. The prospect of a criminal investigation clearly loomed ahead, but we laughed it off and called them crazy. What justification of terrorism? The warnings from Roskomnadzor had not identified a single specific phrase or even words which were “signs” [of justifying terrorism], and it couldn’t identify them - my text contained no words to that effect. As it soon became clear, that isn’t important.

On 6 February, the doorbell rang and I opened it. A dozen armed men pushed me back with riot shields into the far room. This is how I found out that a criminal case had, in fact, been opened against me.

A house search is a dirty and humiliating procedure. One set of unknown men go through your things, and another looks on unperturbed. Old notes, receipts, letters with foreign stamps - everything suddenly takes on a suspicious, criminal air. Everything needs to be explained. Your most important and necessary possessions - laptop, telephone - become “material evidence”. Colleagues and family can easily become “accomplices”.

I was robbed that day. They took three laptops, two telephones, a dictaphone, USB drives. Six months later, they robbed me again when they froze my bank accounts. I was still only a “suspect” when they put my name on an official list of active extremists and terrorists. Now I can’t get a bank card in my own name, open a savings account or apply for a mortgage - the state has written me out of everyday economic life.

All they had to do next was take the only thing I have left - my freedom - and on 20 September my status in the case changed. Now I am officially accused of a crime under Article 205.2, Part 2 - justification of terrorism via mass media. This means a fine of up to a million roubles [£12,470] or a seven year prison sentence.

I did not justify terrorism. I analysed the reasons behind the terrorist attack in Arkhangelsk. I tried to understand why a young man - who had his whole life ahead of him - decided to kill himself in this suicide-attack

I do not accept my guilt and consider the criminal case against me a form of banal revenge by angry siloviki [“strong men” - law enforcement, military, security service personnel]. In the article in question, I put the responsibility for the explosion in Arkhangelsk at their feet. I wrote that the repressive state has finally got a reaction. That the cruel law enforcement policies makes citizens meaner. That when legal routes are blocked, protest energy is pushed into this socially dangerous path.

If you aren’t afraid, publish this quote:

“A strong state. A strong president, a strong governor. This is a country where the power belongs to those who are strong, the siloviki.

The generation of the Arkhangelsk bomber grew up in this atmosphere. They know that you can’t go to protests - they’ll be dispersed, you might get beaten up and then convicted. They know that you can be punished for holding a single picket. They see that you can join only a certain range of political parties without fear, and that you can say only a certain range of opinions freely. This generation learned by example that you can’t get justice in a court. The judge just approves a decision that the police have ordered.

Over many years, the limitation of political and civic freedoms has created not only an unfree state, but a repressive state in Russia. A state that is unsafe and scary to come into contact with.”

I still believe this is true. Moreover, in my view, the state has only confirmed my earlier hypotheses in conducting this criminal case against me:

“To punish. To prove your guilt and convict you, this is their only task. They only need the smallest, even formal hook in order to drag an individual into the grindstones of the legal system.”

I did not justify terrorism. I analysed the reasons behind the terrorist attack in Arkhangelsk. I tried to understand why a young man - who had his whole life ahead of him - decided to kill himself in this suicide-attack. Perhaps I made a mistake when I reconstructed his motives - and it’d be good if I did! - but no one has proven that. Accusation instead of discussion - this is a rather primitive and rough position. It’s a fist in the face instead of responding to a comment.

It’s a fist in the face of every journalist in our country.

You can’t know beforehand which exact words or the order in which they’re placed, will offend your average silovik, endowed with power. They called an opinion a crime. They are making a criminal out of a person who was simply doing their job.

According to this principle, you can make up a criminal case out of any more or less controversial text. It’s enough to find “experts” who can sign the “expert analysis” that the investigators need. With this in mind, would you take on a problematic topic? Would you ask questions that will most likely send the authorities crazy? Would you decide to expose a silovik if they were involved in a crime?

The criminal case against me is the murder of freedom of speech. With my example in mind, dozens and hundreds of other journalists won’t come forward with the truth promptly.

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