Crimean supporters of Russian annexation jailed after criticizing ruling party
The charges against Alexei Nazimov and Alushta politician Pavel Stepanchenko keep changing, but the men are essentially accused of extorting money for agreeing not to publish compromising information in a newspaper that had long ceased publication. There are other dubious aspects to the case, yet these have not stopped the court under Russian control from continuing to extend the men’s detention.
Both Nazimov and Stepanchenko declared hunger strike in protest on March 25. There was still no reaction and on April 3, after consulting with lawyers, they agreed to abandon it.
Three men were detained on October 4, 2016: Nazimov, editor of ‘Your Newspaper’, Stepanchenko, and a cameraman for the newspaper Andrei Oblezov. The latter is not mentioned in the report from the Investigative Committee on Oct 6. The investigators claim that Nazimov tried to extort 150 thousand roubles from a member of the United Russia party for not publishing defamatory information about him and the party. Stepanchenko, as a council deputy, was supposed to convince his colleague to pay the money. Nazimov and Oblezov were allegedly arrested while handed over the money.
As mentioned, the court both then and later has ignored the fact that the print version of the paper had stopped being issued in 2015, and that the money which Nazimov had on him when detained was provably intended for a number of Internet advertisements. The amount was also not so very large – around 2,675 USD.
Novaya Gazeta has followed the case, and spoken with Nazimov’s lawyer Alexei Ladin. He notes that however radically the investigators change the charges, the court simply goes along with them, and agrees to continue the men’s detention. Nazimov and his lawyer assert that it follows from one of the versions presented that there were no elements of a crime in the journalist’s actions, yet he remains in custody.
The ‘arguments’ presented for their imprisonment seem ludicrous. The prosecution, for example, argued that the very fact that Alushta is a small city and Nazimov well-known means that he could ‘influence’ the course of the case. The men say that no investigative activities are being carried out.
This case is quite different from most. At least Stepanchenko actively supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and both men were members of the communist party until the end of 2016. Both actively criticised the actions of the ruling ‘United Russia’ party on the eve of the Russian elections which Russia illegally held in occupied Crimea. They assert that this is the reason for their imprisonment.
This is not the first time that Stepanchenko has faced a rude awakening after his active support for Russia’s invasion and annexation back in 2014, for which he reportedly received an award. He was one of 50 or more Crimeans who were violently dispersed while trying to hold a peaceful protest on June 4, 2016. As reported, the protest was over the appearance of commercial outlets and funfair attractions blocking the beach in Alushta. Local residents are convinced that corruption among the authorities is behind the loss of access to their beach.
Your Newspaper, by then only an Internet publication, reported that an attempt by the initiative group to agree the protest on the beachfront with the city authorities had been rejected. Having failed to get permission, they avoided any loudspeakers or other items that could get them accused of holding an unauthorized protest, and tried to call their peaceful action a ‘meeting with city council deputy Stepanchenko’. Such meetings, they believed, could not be banned. In Ukraine they are not, and in Ukraine, you only need to notify the authorities of a planned protest, not ask for permission.
The situation under Russian occupation proved quite different, with this proving unexpected for Stepanchenko. He was clearly startled when the police demanded to see their permit and can be heard on the video here actually telling the police that there is a notification system, and that they had ‘notified’ the authorities.
The police soon physically grabbed Stepanchenko and tried to drag him to a police car. The other protesters tried to prevent this, and the police called in reinforcements. The officers eventually pushed Stepanchenko into the car which was then surrounded by enraged protesters, including several women with children.
The same newspaper reported later that Stepanchenko had been released after 7 hours, with his clothes ripped and with signs of bleeding on his back. Two other protesters were at that time still being held in custody. Stepanchenko told the paper about his “illegal detention” saying that the police had hurled him to the floor in their minivan and proceeded to kick him. He was then taken to the police station and says that for the first three hours he was not permitted to call his lawyer.
Stepanchenko was also angered that he had been illegally held for over 3 hours and rang the police number to inform of this. One of the heads of that department came running within 10 minutes, but not with the result Stepanchenko expected. Instead, the police head shouted at the officers because they had let Stepanchenko hold on to his mobile phone!
Back in June Stepanchenko was confronted with only administrative charges. He and Nazimov are now facing criminal prosecution with everything suggesting that the aim is to keep them behind bars.