“Seven Years in Prison for Two Pages”: An Open Letter by Journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva
October 1, 2019
Pskov journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva faces up to seven years in prison for her published comments. In November of last year—first, in a broadcast on the radio station Echo of Moscow in Pskov, then on the website Pskov Newswire—she discussed the reasons why a 17-year-old man blew himself up at the FSB office in Arkhangelsk. She has now been charged with publicly “condoning” terrorism, as punishable under Article 205.2.2 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code.
On October 1, Echo Moscow, Mediazona, Novaya Gazeta, TV Rain, Takie Dela, Snob, MBKh Media, 7×7, Pskovskaya Guberniya, MOKH, Wonderzine, and Meduza published an open letter by Prokopieva. We have joined them in this act of solidarity.
My name (our name?) is Svetlana Prokopyeva. I am a journalist, and I could be sent to prison for seven years for “condoning” terrorism.
Nearly a year ago, there was a bomb blast in Arkhangelsk. It was unexpected and stunning: 17-year-old Mikhail Zhlobitsky blew himself up in the entrance to the FSB office there. Before he did this, he wrote he was blowing himself up because the FSB had become “brazen,” framing and torturing people.
The suicide bombing was the subject of my regular commentary on the radio station Echo of Moscow in Pskov. “Acting intentionally,” I wrote a text entitled “Crackdowns for the State.” My commentary was aired on November 7 and then was published on the website Pskov Newswire.
Nearly a month passed before Pskov Newswire and Echo of Moscow received warnings from Roskomnadzor: Russia’s quasi-censor saw evidence I had “condoned” terrorism in my comments. In early December, administrative charges were filed against the two media outlets, costing them 350,000 rubles in fines when a justice of the peace found them guilty of the charges. Simultaneously, the Pskov office of the Russian Investigative Committee launched an inquiry into whether I had personally violated Article 205.2 of the Russian Criminal Code. Criminal prosecution loomed as a distinct possibility, but we laughed, thinking they must be crazy. What could they mean by “condoning” terrorism? In its warnings, Roskomnadzor failed to point to a single phrase or even word that would qualify as evidence that I had condoned terrorism. Nor could it point them out because they were not there. As it soon transpired, however, that did not matter.
On February 6, my doorbell rang. When I opened it, a dozen armed, helmeted men rushed in, pinning me to the wall in the far room with their shields. This was how I found out the authorities had, in fact, decided to file charges against me.
A police search is a disgusting, humiliating procedure. One group of strangers roots through your things while another group of strangers looks on indifferently. Old notes, receipts, and letters sent from other countries take on a suspicious, criminal tinge, demanding an explanation. The things you need the most, including your laptop and telephone, are turned into “physical evidence.” Your colleagues and family members are now liable to becoming “accomplices” without even trying.
I was robbed that day: the authorities confiscated three laptops, two telephones, a dictaphone, and flash drives. When they blocked my bank accounts six months later, they robbed me again: I was only a “suspect” when I was placed on Rosfinmonitoring’s list of “extremists” and “terrorists.” I am now unable to get a bank card in my own name, open a savings account or apply for a mortgage. The Russian state has made it impossible for me to exist financially.
All that remained for the authorities was to rob me of the last thing I had: my freedom. On September 20, I was officially charged with violating Article 205.2.2 of the criminal code: condoning terrorism via the mass media. If convicted, I could be fined up to one million rubles or sent to prison for up to seven years.
I deny any wrongdoing. I consider the charges against me petty revenge on the part of security services officers offended by my remarks. I claimed they were responsible for the blast in Arkhangelsk. I wrote that the state’s crackdowns had generated a backlash: brutal law enforcement policies had embittered people. Since legal means of protesting had been blocked, the desire to protest had been pushed into such socially dangerous channels.
Publish this quotation from my text if you are not afraid.
“A strong state. A strong president, a strong governor. A country in which power belongs to strongmen.
“The Arkhangelsk suicide bomber’s generation has grown up in this atmosphere. They know it is forbidden to attend protest rallies: police can break up rallies or, worse, they can beat up protesters and then convict them of crimes. This generation knows that solo pickets are a punishable offense. They see that you can belong only to certain political parties without suffering for it and that you can voice only a certain range of opinions without fearing for your safety. This generation has been taught that you cannot find justice in court: judges will return the verdicts the law enforcement agencies and prosecutors want them to return.
“The long-term restriction of political and civic freedoms has given rise in Russia to a state that is not only devoid of liberty but oppressive, a state with which it is unsafe and scary to deal.”
This is what I still think. Moreover, in my opinion, the Russian state has only confirmed my arguments by charging me with a crime.
“Their only task is to punish, to prove someone’s guilt and convict them. The merest formal excuse is enough to drag someone into the grindstone of the legal system,” I wrote.
I did not condone terrorism. I analyzed the causes of the attack. I tried to understand why a young man who had his whole life ahead of him decided to commit a crime and kill himself. Perhaps my reconstruction of his motives was mistaken. I would be glad to be mistaken, but no one has proven I was. It is rather primitive and crude to charge someone with a crime rather than engaging in a discussion. It is like punching someone in the face for something theyon said.
It is a punch in the face of every journalist in our country.
It is impossible to know in advance what words in what order will tick off the strongmen. They have labeled the opinion I voiced a crime. They have turned someone who was just doing her job into a criminal.
Using the same rationale, you can cook up a criminal case based on any more or less critical text. You merely need to find so-called experts who will sign an “expert opinion” for police investigators. If you know this can happen, will you tackle thorny subjects as a journalist? Will you ask questions that are certain to irritate the authorities? Will you accuse high-ranking officials of crimes?
The criminal case against me is an attempt to murder free speech. Remembering how the authorities made an example of me, dozens and hundreds of other journalists will not dare tell the truth when it needs to be told.
Post updated on July 3, 2020.; Translated by the Russian Reader
Svetlana Prokopyeva outside the Pskov Regional Court in July 2020 by Ludmila Savitskaya (RFE/RL)