15 June 2020
Tomorrow, at 1 p.m., my criminal trial will begin. After 18 months, everyone is probably fed up with it – all these endless reminders about freedom of speech and the prosecution of journalism itself. (Even so, let me remind you that I am being put on trial for expressing my opinion, for my professional work as a journalist, for trying to understand something and to issue warnings). Plus there is the coronavirus – something completely different to worry about.
Even so, I ask you to follow this case. I believe that it is important, not because it is my life, but for the following reason.
In my column ‘Repressions for the State,’ I described how a strong authority uses force in order to restrict civil liberties. Since then:
— Our president, who has been in power for 20 years, has found a way to rule for ever;
— Soldiers from the Russian National Guard have shot a man dead in his own apartment;
— A single picket has become a reason for an administrative jail sentence;
— Simply leaving one’s house can get one fined;
— Failure to wear a facemask can get you handcuffed and taken to the police station (purely in order to ensure your own health, of course);
— And there is a new word in electoral law: soon we shall have to take part in a vote in which our votes will decide nothing, not even formally, and they may be counted however you like, but you already know what the result will be.
That is to say, the state is becoming tougher and more repressive; criminal cases based on allegations of justifying terrorism are becoming more and more numerous; and the reasons given for the allegations are becoming more and more absurd. You no longer need to feel sorry for [Mikhail] Zhlobitsky or to study his terrorist attack in detail. Nadezhda Belova is being investigated for a comment she posted on the Internet. Liudmila Stech is under investigation for re-posting a comment without adding a word of her own. The latest case in Pskov is simply amazing; I will write more about this. More hell.
The essence of what I wrote in my column was, ‘They say, “Look what happens if you block the valve.” A banal thought: if you forbid protest to be expressed in legally permitted ways (rallies, pickets, elections), then protest becomes radicalised and irrational, and that is dangerous.’
The security services certainly saw there was a threat, but they decided that I was the threat. That it was I, not some kind of abstract radicalisation, that they had to fight. That’s as if to say, if you ignore the problem, it will go away. But in fact there is a problem, and it will not be solved by itself. The stronger and more stupid the repression, the angrier the protest, especially if it is driven deep inside. And the coil twists ever more tightly.
In theory, all it would need to stop this nonsense would be for one single judge to make a common-sense decision in accordance with the spirit of the law. Or for a single prosecutor to refuse to bring an absurd charge. Or even just for one police investigator to halt a case like mine for lack of evidence. But that’s a fantasy, and it isn’t going to happen.
The reality is that a journalist is being put on trial for doing her job. Of course, it is far worse when journalists are killed or injured. But then it counts as a crime, and the criminals are investigated and even sentenced. But here, in my case, everything is being carried out in accordance with the law.
Svetlana Prokopyeva is a freelance Russian journalist based in the north-western city of Pskov. In a commentary on Ekho Moskvy radio station in November 2018, she discussed the bombing that had occurred the week before outside the offices of the Federal Security Service in Arkhangelsk. The bombing had been carried out by 17-year-old Mikhail Zhlobitsky, who died in the incident. In her commentary, Prokopyeva suggested that Russia’s policy of state repression against protest could lead people to take desperate measures. In July 2019, Prokopyeva’s name was added to the official list of those declared ‘terrorists and extremists,’ and she was placed under house-arrest. In September 2019, she was formally charged with publicly justifying terrorism. If found guilty of the charge being brought against her, she could face up to seven years in prison. Court hearings were postponed in mid-April 2020 because of the coronavirus epidemic, but opened on 16 June 2020. Novaya gazeta reported on the trial on 18 June 2020 https://novayagazeta.ru/articles/2020/06/18/85890-net-slov
Others mentioned by Prokopyeva are Nadezhda Belova, who in March 2020 was investigated on charges of publicly justifying terrorism after she posted a comment on social media in 2018 regarding Zhlobitsky’s suicide; Liudmila Stech, who was arrested in May 2020 and accused of publicly justifying terrorism after she re-posted a post on social media in 2019 regarding Zhlobitsky’s suicide; and Aleksei Shibanov, from Pskov, arrested in June 2020 on charges of publicly justifying terrorism and incitement to extremism following posts on his social media website.
Translation and notes by Elizabeth Teague