Today, the trial against journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva is set to start in Pskov, Russia, on groundless charges of publicly supporting terrorism.
Authorities have indicted her for “public incitement to terrorist activity, public justification or propaganda of terrorism.” If convicted, Prokopyeva faces a maximum seven years of imprisonment.
So what did she do?
In November 2018, she was discussing on her radio broadcast a suicide bombing in the northwestern city of Arkhangelsk in which a 17-year-old detonated a bomb inside the Federal Security Service (FSB) building, killing himself and injuring several FSB officers. Before the bombing, the assailant had said on social media that he was going to commit “an act of terrorism,” because the “FSB ... fabricates criminal cases and tortures people.”
In that context Prokopyeva criticized Russia’s repressive policies, which have made political activism nearly impossible and which have restricted civil and political rights. As Prokopyeva explained yesterday on Facebook her comments on the motivation of the bomber were to underscore that as long as Russia insisted on cutting off lawful channels to express discontent, such as peaceful assemblies or fair elections, they risked “radicalizing” critics – with potentially dangerous consequences.
But instead of addressing these criticisms, authorities have labeled Prokopyeva, the messenger, as the danger.
With Russian acquittal rates below 1 percent, there is a real risk that the court could convict Prokopyeva. Even if she were only fined or issued a conditional sentence, she would have a criminal record and the sentence could bar her from practicing journalism for up to five years.
Prokopyeva has been on Russia’s Federal list of “terrorists and extremists” since July 2019. The authorities can block assets, including bank accounts, of people on this list, allowing only minimal amounts for living expenses. As a result, Prokopyeva must obtain special permission even to pay her bills. If convicted, she would remain on the list for the duration of her sentence; and additional restrictions could be added.
Prokopyeva’s prosecution is a violation of freedom of expression, but not just hers – it sends yet another chilling message that in Russia, raising uncomfortable questions can have severe repercussions – a lesson the authorities have been giving the media for years.
In Prokopyeva’s own words, one cannot criticize authorities in Russia “without being labelled as an enemy of the state.” Russia’s authorities should stop wasting resources with groundless prosecutions and instead foster free debate.