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Russia urged to free journalist held for 12 months on spurious charge

Headquarters of RBC Media Group, where Alexander Sokolov used to work
Headquarters of RBC Media Group, where Alexander Sokolov used to work

AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

This statement was originally published on rsf.org on 28 July 2016.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the immediate and unconditional release of Alexander Sokolov, a Russian investigative journalist who was arrested exactly a year ago today and whose detention was extended yesterday until the end of October.

The flimsy nature of the “extremism” charge against Sokolov suggests that he is being persecuted because of his reporting. He specializes in investigating large-scale corruption.

At the time of his arrest, Sokolov was working for the RBC media group, which recently fired its editors and adopted a pro-government line. He has a PhD in economics for which his thesis was about the consequences of the investment of public funds embezzled by major Russian companies.

His last, well-researched, article was about the embezzlement of public funds in the construction of the Vostochny Cosmodrome. His claims seem to have been corroborated by the Russian Court of Accounts in December 2015, when it announced the discovery of “financial irregularities” in connection with this massive federal project and gave an estimate for the amount embezzled that was close to Sokolov's own figure – around 93 billion roubles (1.27 billion euros).

When his article was published, Sokolov was arrested along with two other people for helping to create a website for a group called “For Responsible Government” (IGPR “ZOV”) that was calling for a referendum to amend the Russian constitution so that politicians could be held accountable under criminal law.

The website revived the call of a group that was created in the 1990s and was banned in 2010, which was the pretext used by the prosecutor's office for initiating the case.

But IGPR “ZOV” had done virtually nothing in the two years prior to the launch of the investigation and all of Russia's human rights groups agree that it did not break any laws. The Sova Centre, a leading authority on hate crimes, insists that it did not incite violence.

The public prosecutor's office nonethless decided to charge Sokolov with “creating an extremist community,” which carries a possible eight-year prison sentence. The prosecution case is nonetheless completely empty. There is just an old leaflet with the slogan: “You have voted, so you should judge.” On the basis of the leaflet alone, he should not be charged with anything more serious that “intent to distribute extremist texts,” for which the penalty is just a fine.

“Alexander Sokolov is the victim of a profound injustice,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “It is hard to account for his prolonged detention except in the light of his investigative reporting and his academic specialization in the most senstive subjects. We call for his immediate and unconditional release and the withdrawal of all the charges against him.”

The investigators claim that Sokolov “was aware” that the real aim of IGPR “ZOV” was “destabilizing the authorities” and not a referendum. Sokolov says he is being a accused of “thoughtcrime” in the Orwellian sense, because “being aware” is not listed in the Russian criminal code. Sokolov's request to be given a lie detector test has so far been refused.

Sokolov has appealed to the Russian Ombudsman and to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that he is the victim of arbitrary detention. An RBC journalist even raised the issue with President Vladimir Putin during Putin's traditional question-and-answer session with Russian citizens in December. Putin promised to look into the matter but a fourth person was arrested in the case the same day.

Russia is ranked 148th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

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