On 29 October, three well-known bloggers from the Volga town of Samara, Dmitry Begun, Oleg Ivanets and Natalya Umyarova were arrested on suspicion of blackmail. The police also seized 1,200,000 roubles from Begun and Umyarova, a bribe they received from Sergei Shatilo, head of a local medical equipment company.
Indeed, the Samara regional police department announced that the bloggers’ blackmailing activities were of epic proportions. Allegedly, Begun, Ivanets and Umyarova had taken three million roubles from Shatilo in return for not spreading incriminating information about his company, which, along with the regional government, was the main investor in the construction of a new cardiac centre in Samara.
This is the first time that bloggers have been arrested in Russia for blackmailing the people they write about online.
A harsh court decision
On arrest, Begun, Ivanets and Umyarova were taken to the Samara region police headquarters for questioning. The bloggers were charged with large scale extortion as an organised criminal gang, a crime carrying a seven to fifteen year prison sentence. All three had their computers seized. Dmitry Begun and Natalya Umyarova confessed their guilt during the initial questioning, but Oleg Ivanets refused to admit to any crime. Begun also agreed to cooperate with the detectives, and after the initial questioning all three were sent to a temporary detention facility.
A district court has ruled to hold Begun, Ivanets and Umyarova in pre-trial detention for two months (until 29 December). All three have small children, but the court refused their lawyers’ appeals for release under house arrest, on the principle that once released, they could use their acquaintance with senior officials to influence the investigation.
Dmitry Begun was charged with large scale extortion.All three bloggers have small children, but the court refused appeals for release under house arrest. The preliminary hearings were held in camera, with no press access, photography or video recording of the process. Begun admitted his guilt, and Natalya Umyarova said that businessman Shatilo had contacted her himself and offered her money to keep her mouth shut.
All three have small children, but the court refused appeals for release under house arrest.
Meanwhile, Ivanets testified that he had received phone threats from unknown callers for refusing to reveal the source of his incriminating information concerning corruption at the new cardiac centre and in the regional health ministry. Ivanets told the court that he had received the documents by email from an anonymous source.
At the end of this closed hearing, the three bloggers were immediately transported to a pre-trial detention facility and, on 3 November, they were formally charged with extortion as an organised criminal gang.
‘The bloggers were unnecessarily harshly treated by the court,’ Andrei Sokolov, a Samara lawyer and head of the Samara Voters’ Union NGO, tells me.
‘All the essential evidence was provided in the first days of the preliminary hearing, and one of the accused admitted his guilt. Suspects are usually only held in pre-trial detention if they might run away, continue to commit crimes or attempt to influence the investigation. None of this is relevant here, but the court went for a strict “correctional” decision when it could have just gone for house arrest.’
Who are the Samara Three?
The three accused are not just bloggers, of whom there are dozens in Samara’s online community: they are leaders of the local blogosphere.
Begun, for instance, headed several Samara publications, acted as a political consultant to municipal officials and worked with the regional government. In 2013, he organised a well-publicised trip for local bloggers and regional governor Nikolai Merkushkin to Saransk in neighbouring Mordovia. This summer, however, Begun suddenly began to use his blog to criticise the governor and regional government. With thousands of daily hits on his website, Begun has had to register as an online media platform following new laws introduced in May 2014.
Meanwhile, Natalya Umyarova worked as a criminal reporter for the weekly Samara Observer, and publishes incriminating material about corrupt bureaucrats and business people on her blog site.
Andrei Sokolov and Oleg Ivanets.Oleg Ivanets reports on Samara’s criminal elements and high ranking local officials in his ‘Gangster Samara’ blog. In October, he published a book with the same title, where he gave the lowdown on local organised crime.
The critical comments of these bloggers has brought frequent threats. In 2013, unknown criminals set fire to Begun’s car, and last year he and Ivanets were attacked by unknown assailants (who were never found by the police).
Begun and Umyarova are both members of Russia’s Union of Journalists, but their professional colleagues have refused to support them.
This silence has its rational, though. Next month, governor Merkushkin will hand out his annual awards to our ‘best journalists’, a well known Samara journalist who wishes to remain anonymous tells me, ‘so it would be stupid to take up Begun, Umyarova and Ivanets’ cause. They criticised the powers that be, and I don’t want to be suspected of supporting the opposition. I could be fired from the newspaper where I work and earn a good living praising governor Merkushkin. Money, after all, has no smell.’
Is it about blackmail or politics?
The police are demanding that the bloggers reveal the source of the documents they received—the so-called mole.
Andrei Astashkin, a Samara blogger, journalist and deputy leader of the local branch of the Yabloko political party, believes that there is a political ‘contract’ behind this case.
‘Oleg Ivanets published a series of articles he called “The Samara Syndicate”’ on his blog site,’ Astashkin tells me. ‘These articles documented the large scale embezzlement that was going on at Modern Medical Technologies, whose owner Sergei Shatilo is on friendly terms with Mikhail Babich, the regional Presidential Envoy, governor Nikolai Merkushkin and regional Health Minister Gennady Gridasov.
‘Gridasov directed the chief medical officers of clinics in Samara and Tolyatti to present their technical procurement requirements in such a way as to allow Shatilo’s company to win the contract, explaining that the businessman had the ear of Merkushkin and Babich. After winning the tender Shatilo bought the equipment from his own subsidiary companies at a 200% profit. He also paid no tax on these transactions.
In 2013, unknown criminals set fire to Begun’s car.‘As a result, in 2011-2012, Modern Medical Technologies robbed the public purse to the tune of 224.7m roubles [£2.27m]. On 1 September, a criminal case was opened against Shatilo; on 2 September it was closed. The documents published by Ivanets could form the basis of a high profile criminal case against Shatilo, Babich, Merkushkin and Gridasov. The governor was determined to stop the publication of this information by any means possible, to avoid it getting out at federal level.’
Sokolov sees the bloggers’ arrest as political persecution. ‘They were arrested for publishing information about the corrupt practices of the governor and his officials’, he tells me. ‘Thanks to them we found out about the shenanigans in our medical services. They also wrote about the embezzlement of public money around the construction of a monument on Ploshchad Slavy [Glory Square]; the governor’s lobbying on behalf of Mordovan companies and the mass use of Mordovan construction materials for buildings in the Samara region. That’s why the authorities wanted to see the bloggers severely punished.’
After the three were arrested, unidentified people removed some critical posts from their sites, including, as Astashkin tells me, Oleg Ivanets’ last blog post about corruption in the regional ministry of health.
The computer seized from Dmitry Begun by the police contained incriminating material on all the region’s senior officials. The police are now studying these files and they may form the basis of further criminal cases.
The computer seized from Begun by the police contained incriminating material on all the region’s senior officials.
Dmitry Savchuk, another local blogger and head of the Economics and Power PR agency, believes that further investigation of the case could expose many more corrupt officials.
‘If Begun is cooperating with the police he will reveal all his sources of information. He’s not going to protect any “mole”,’ he says. And according to informal sources, some senior officials have already left the region to avoid possible arrest.
Where do the authorities stand?
General Sergei Solodovnikov, regional head of police, has been personally involved in interrogating the arrested bloggers.
‘This organised gang has been operating in the Samara region, extorting money from people on whom they have incriminating evidence,’ he declared. ‘It is not the role of bloggers and the blogosphere to decide whether a document incriminates someone or not; that is the role of the law. Everyone needs to understand that they should do their work professionally and not be a crook; if you choose to devote your life to blogging, then do it properly and honestly. This gang was operating for some time: this wasn’t their first blackmail operation. I’m sure that the investigation will be completed and each of the suspects will get what they deserve, as decided by a court of law. I don’t think this will be the final episode in this media drama. I think everyone just has to come to their own conclusions. No one will be immune from the law in our region.’
At a reception held by Nikolai Merkushkin on National Unity Day, the arrest of the three bloggers was the main topic of conversation. During the musical entertainment and buffet supper, officials could not contain their joy that the bloggers that had been smearing their reputations were behind bars.
And the public?
Meanwhile, Samara’s civic activists are planning to bring the corruption scandal that they believe led to the arrest and charges against Begun, Umyarova and Ivanets to the notice of the Federal authorities.
Lyudmila Kuzmina, who heads the Volga Voice organisation, has spoken out publicly against the arrests, and Sergei Tuchin, the deputy chair of the Samara Public Chamber has demanded that FSB, the police and the Procurator General’s office investigate the bloggers’ accusations of corruption among senior officials.
Mikhail Matveyev, a deputy of the regional Duma has also lodged a parliamentary question with the FSB and Procurator General’s office, also asking for an examination of the accusations of corruption and the bringing of the culprits to justice if they turn out to be true. The hornets’ nest is well and truly heaving.
Photographs: (c) Michael Lawrence.