7 July 2020
Aleksandr Verkhovsky, director of the Sova Center for Information and Analysis, member of the Human Rights Council of the Russian President, laureate of the Moscow Helsinki Group
Everything has already been said about the unjust verdict passed in the case of Svetlana Prokopyeva. But we need to talk about something else.
If Prokopyeva’s conviction is not reversed, and if she is not declared innocent on appeal, this will be the first – or at least, the first widely publicised – case when an individual has been convicted not merely on no grounds (we have seen that happen more than once before) but for discussing seriously dangerous activity by radical elements and state policies to counter it. Moreover, Prokopyeva was convicted not for discussing such matters in a personal capacity – such as in the kitchen or on a blog – but as a matter of professional necessity, in this case, as a journalist. A criminal conviction, even when it does not carry a prison sentence, is a serious matter, especially when it relates to articles concerning anti-extremism and anti-terrorism, and it threatens to bring a long list of problems with it. This isn’t just a reprimand, or defamation by media trolls or even dismissal from one’s job. Criminal prosecution is a pretty effective way to shut someone up and to scare others off. Clearly, that is the intended goal.
Meanwhile, there are radical groups in the country that are capable of, or accustomed to, using violence, as well as individuals and groups that are in the process of formation or that could evolve in such a way. And Prokopyeva was right when she argued in her article that, the tighter the screws are turned, the more likely such groups are to multiply. This isn’t about massive upheavals or revolution, it is about the radicalization of public sentiments, both oppositionist and loyalist; it is about the deterioration of the public mood that would otherwise not be significant.
Our security and law-enforcement officers [siloviki] believe that they know precisely how to deal with this, and Prokopyeva’s sentence is their strong warning to everyone else: not only do not try to tackle the problems of radicalization, but keep quiet about them. However, even the most wonderful intelligence and police services cannot be the only tool to counter radicalization, and in theory any general of the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the Federal Security Service would doubtless agree with this. In practice, however, the siloviki are, because of certain circumstances and attitudes of their own, opposed to this idea in every respect. Moreover, they are now taking a new step. Doubtless this will be perceived as a precedent or, as we say, as a ‘signal.’ And we shall see other similar criminal cases.
This will result in an increase in unjust sentences not only of journalists but also – why not? – of experts, which is in itself outrageous. It will also scare people away from the subject of radicalization and the marginalization of society and, evidently, from informed discussion of the topic. This will result in the further decline in the level of the justice system, in the quality of its technical operational capacity, and in the simple rationality of anti-terrorism and anti-extremism policy. None of this is likely to help curb radicalization.
Translated by Elizabeth Teague