Crimean journalist & politician jailed on ‘extortion’ charges after criticizing United Russia party
Alexei Nazimov, the Chief Editor of a newspaper in Alushta in Russian-occupied Crimea, has been sentenced to nearly five years on ‘extortion’ charges probably linked with his criticism of members of the ruling United Russia party. He and Pavel Stepanchenko, a former Alushta City Council deputy, in October 2016, have been in detention since October 2016, with suspicions about the case only exacerbated by the way the charges kept changing, and the ‘judge’s’ behaviour.
After several delays, the Russian-controlled Alushta City Court under ‘judge’ Svetlana Vashchenko found Nazimov, Stepanchenko and cameraman Andrei Oblezov guilty of extorting money from the local branch of the ‘United Russia’ party for the supposed “non-publication of defamatory information”. Nazimov received 4 years and 7 months; Stepanchenko – 3 years, 9 months; and Oblyozov – a 3-year suspended sentence.
Although the case is so murky and confused that the renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre has stopped short of declaring Nazimov and Stepanchenko political prisoners, it did add them to its list of likely victims of political persecution.
It was claimed by the prosecution that Nazimov, Stepanchenko and Oblezov had entered into a criminal conspiracy to extort money from politicians and businessmen. The money was allegedly in exchange for not publishing “defamatory texts or information that could harm their rights and interests”.
There were multiple problems with the indictment, and a suspicious number of supposed lapses of memory cited as excuse for not providing testimony which would spoil the prosecution’s case.
During one hearing, for example, Halyna Ogneva, Head of the Alushta Administration, and a top official since Russian annexation, was ‘unable to remember’ whether Nazimov’s website ‘Your Newspaper’ had published texts critical of the authorities prior to annexation. This was clearly because the prosecution was claiming that this website had been created with the aim of extorting money from the ‘United Russia’ party, although there had been very many such critical publications.
Three alleged ‘episodes’ were cited in the indictment, one of which ‘emerged’ after the men had been arrested.
Nazimov was supposed to have demanded money from Ryzhkov, a member of ‘United Russia’ (and leader of the local ‘Self-Defence’ paramilitaries who helped Russia’s seizure of power. Nazimov supposedly demanded 150 thousand roubles for not publishing defamatory or otherwise damaging information about ‘United Russia’. Ryzhkov claims that he paid 30 thousand, but then decided not to pay the rest as Nazimov wouldn’t give any guarantee that he wouldn’t publish damaging material.
Four texts were subsequently published with information compromising to ‘United Russia’.
Nazimov then allegedly approached Ryzhkov again with a number of demands. The latter supposedly agreed to pay the money with the men arrested at that point by the FSB.
This individual, also a member of ‘United Russia’, is also alleged to have suffered to the tune of 30 thousand roubles from this supposed extortion. The prosecution claimed that Nazimov had met with the businessman Krasnenkov and asked him to organize a meeting between Nazimov and members of the Alushta branch of the ‘United Russia’ party, which Krasnenkov did. A little later, according to the indictment, Oblyozov turned up and demanded 30 thousand roubles for the paper to not publish negative information about the activities of the local authorities. It is alleged that Krasnenko, out of concern for the reputation of the local authorities and the investment climate in the region, paid the money.
Nazimov asserts that Krasnenkov initiated a meeting at which he warned Nazimov that he should not criticize ‘United Russia’ in his texts for ‘Your Newspaper’ since that would spoil the investment client on the eve of a major investment project. Nazimov says that Krasnenkov warned that if the journalist didn’t take heed, the situation could be resolved “in a radical manner”. He further maintains that Krasnenkov insisted that Nazimov meet with Ryzhkov who, it later transpired, works closely with the FSB. Ryzhkov told him that ‘United Russia’ had been allocated 100 thousand roubles for ‘work’ with the opposition media before the elections to Russia’s State Duma (held illegally in occupied Crimea). He offered Nazimov money for writing a positive text about ‘United Russia’, but the latter refused. The journalist says that because of the threats he and Stepanchenko had received, he went for a compromise. He agreed to not mention any link with ‘United Russia’ when writing critical articles for which he received 30 thousand roubles (just over 400 EUR).
Nazimov asserts that Ryzhkov had tried to get him to find smut about local officials on several occasions, but that he had refused. He says that Ryzhkov himself proposed the meeting at which he was arrested. This was supposed to be to discuss new conditions of cooperation and Ryzhkov asked for Stepanchenko and Oblyozov to be present.
Halyna Konovalenko, an MP of the Russian-controlled ‘Crimean parliament’, was given victim status merely because she represents ‘United Russia’ which it is claimed could have suffered 450 thousand roubles in damages.
Six months after Nazimov and Stepanchenko were arrested, two members of the Sudarev family, who have a monopoly on funeral services in Alushta, came out with the claim that the defendants had threatened to publish damaging information if they didn’t pay up 300 thousand roubles and that they refused to pay up.
Nazimov dismisses the allegations from the owners of the funeral service, and points out that such conflicts have continued since 2013, with the Sudarevs having lost attempts to sue him as they could not prove that his information was false. One of the articles about alleged machinations had arisen from a report from residents which he could not have known about at the time he is alleged to have blackmailed the two supposed aggrieved parties.
Alexei Ladin, Nazimov’s lawyer, is dismissive of the Sudarevs’ belated claims. There is nothing to substantiate their words, while there is a court ruling finding them guilty of an administrative offence, as Nazimov had earlier mentioned.
Ladin is convinced that the whole ‘case’ is a flagrant provocation, probably orchestrated by the FSB. He notes that because the allegations could not muster the more serious allegation, they got Ryzhkov to offer each of the men 150 thousand roubles – just as the FSB was waiting to arrest them.
In court, only Nazimov asked that his Ukrainian citizenship be taken into account. As reported earlier, this case is different from other examples of political persecution since Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. Both Nazimov and Stepanchenko were members of the communist party until the end of 2016, with Stepanchenko, at least, having actively supported Russia’s annexation.
Both, however, were also vocal in criticizing the actions of the ruling ‘United Russia’ party on the eve of the Russian ‘elections’, illegally held in September 2016. They were arrested soon afterwards.