News of the Day: 17 December 2020

The Moscow Times: A court in Siberia has sentenced an elderly Jehovah’s Witness leader to six years in prison for organizing an extremist group, authorities and the religious organization said Wednesday. The Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia said Yury Savelyev, 66, has spent almost half his sentence in pre-trial detention and is expected to be released in 2023. Authorities accused him of “supervising readings and discussions of extremist literature” in his apartment in Russia’s third-largest city of Novosibirsk after Russia outlawed Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2017 and until his arrest in 2018.

The Guardian: Vladimir Putin has denied Russia was behind the poisoning of the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, calling a recent investigation by Bellingcat a “falsification”. “Who needs to poison him,” he said during a nationally televised press conference, denying that Russia’s FSB spy agency was involved. “If they’d wanted to [poison him] then they probably would have finished the job.” The Russian president said he had been told of Bellingcat’s report that accused the FSB of dispatching a hit squad to poison Navalny with a nerve agent similar to the one used in Salisbury in 2018. Navalny, who nearly died in the attack, was evacuated to the Charité clinic in Berlin for treatment. In the Kremlin’s first public reaction to the accusations, Putin accused US intelligence agencies of leaking information in the case. “It means that this Berlin patient has the support of the American intelligence services,” he said. He also called Bellingcat, the online investigative collective founded by Eliot Higgins, a front for foreign intelligence agencies. “It’s not an investigation, it’s the legalisation of the materials of American intelligence agencies,” he said from his residence at Novo-Ogaryovo. The Bellingcat investigation used mobile phone and travel data to identify and track eight FSB agents who shadowed Navalny up until the attack and who had ties to a chemical weapons agency. The recent investigations into Russia’s security services have shown that data security has become an urgent issue of national security for the Kremlin. […] Putin’s remarks appeared to confirm one of Bellingcat’s key findings: that agents were indeed following Navalny. “Yes, he was being followed, it was the FSB, but they didn’t poison him and they didn’t try to kill him,” Navalny paraphrased Putin’s remarks in an online post. Christo Grozev, the lead Russia investigator for Bellingcat, said: “Of all the possible defence narratives, Putin appeared to choose the worst of all. Essentially validated 100% of our findings.”

RFE/RL: A second member of the Russian protest collective Pussy Riot has been punished by a Moscow court for her part in a performance last month to highlight harsh prison sentences handed down against people who hurled plastic cups and plastic bottles at police. Lawyer Mansur Gilmanov said on December 17 that Maria Alyokhina was found guilty of violating regulations on public gatherings and ordered to pay 15,000-ruble ($204) fine. On November 28, Alyokhina, her colleague Rita Flores, also known as Margarita Konovalova, and artist Farkhad Israfilli-Gelman staged a performance they called “Fragile! Handle With Care!” not far from the State History Museum near Red Square in the Russian capital.

RFE/RL: A court in Moscow on December 17 upheld pretrial detention for a Russian physicist specializing in hypersonic aircraft who was arrested earlier this month on suspicion of high treason. The Moscow City Court rejected Anatoly Gubanov’s appeal against a lower court’s decision to keep him in custody until at least February 2. Russian officials have portrayed hypersonic aircraft and missiles as a strategically important military opportunity in the face of mounting tension with the West and Washington’s recent decisions to abandon decades-old strategic arms agreements.

Human Rights in Ukraine: The Russian prosecution has demanded an 11-year harsh regime sentence against 63-year-old Oleh Prykhodko although the charges against him were consistently demolished in court, and shown to be flagrantly falsified.  Prykhodko has never concealed his pro-Ukrainian views, and there are very strong grounds for believing that these are the reason he has been imprisoned since 9 October 2019.  Prykhodko’s ‘trial’ on terrorism charges has been taking place at the same Southern District Military Court in Rostov-on-Don (Russia) that earlier passed horrific sentences against Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, Crimean Tatar human rights activist Emir-Usein Kuku and very many other Ukrainian political prisoners.  Claiming that Prykhodko’s ‘guilt’ had been proven,  prosecutor, Sergei Aidinov, asked that the first three years of the sentence be in a ‘prison’, the harshest of all Russia’s penitentiary institutions, followed by another 8 years in a prison colony.  He also asked for a prohibitive 200 thousand rouble ‘fine’

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