Crimean journalist & politician jailed on ‘extortion’ charges for criticism of United Russia party
The ‘trial’ in Russian-occupied Crimea of journalist Alexei Nazimov and politician Pavel Stepanchenko is descending into farce, after never really making much sense. This has not prevented the two men being held in detention since October 2016, and the lack of any substance to the charges may well have no impact upon the eventual verdict.
As reported, three men were detained on October 4, 2016: Nazimov, editor of ‘Your Newspaper’, Stepanchenko, and a cameraman for the newspaper Andrei Oblezov, who is not on trial. The first two men have remained in custody since then, despite the fact that the charges repeated changed.
According to the indictment, Nazimov, Stepanchenko and Oblezov are supported to have 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”.
The problems with the indictment are legion with witnesses or ‘victims’ often claiming startling lapses of memory to get around them. During one of the recent court hearings, 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. The reason is clear – the prosecution claims that this website was created with the aim of extorting money from the ‘United Russia’ party.
Nazimov’s lawyer Alexei Ladin stresses that there were many such critical publications which the official cannot been unaware of, and says that he will be asking for several to be added to the file material. These alone negate a fundamental element of the prosecution’s case.
In this prosecution three alleged ‘episodes’ are cited.
Two members of the Sudarev family, who have a monopoly on funeral services in Alushta, claim that the defendants threatened to publish damaging information if they didn’t pay up 300 thousand roubles and that they refused to pay up.
The indictment speaks of three critical texts having been published.
Nazimov is alleged to have met with businessman Mikhail 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, Oblezov 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 is also supposed to have demanded money from a member of ‘United Russia’ (and leader of the local ‘Self-Defence’ paramilitaries who helped Russia’s seizure of power), Alexander Ryzhkov. 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.
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.
The defendants deny the charges.
Nazimov, for example, 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.
Ladin also notes that the Sudarevs only lodged their claim about ‘extortion’ after Nazimov’s arrest, meaning almost six months after the alleged offence. 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.
The journalist asserts that Mikhail Krasnenkov initiated a meeting at which he warned Nazimov that he should not criticize ‘United Russia’ in his texts for ‘Your Newspaper’ since that will 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 Oblezov to be present.
Stepanchenko says that he had received threats for several months if he did “not calm down” from Dzhemal Dzhangobegov, a city councillor and the leader of the ‘United Russia’ faction.
Alexei 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.
During a court hearing on January 10, Mikhail Krasnenkov, one of the alleged ‘victims’ ‘could not remember’ what device he had used to take a conversation with Nazimov, and was forced to acknowledge that it could have been edited. He was just as unable to recall what the names were of the investors who had allegedly been put off by “Nazimov’s critical publications directed at the local authorities”.
Since he could remember next to nothing, the defence analysed the recording where Krasnenkov had claimed to represent some third party who were interested in cooperation with Nazimov, namely in commissioning and paying for certain texts about public life.
The conversation was extremely vague, which is unsurprising since Krasnenkov admitted in court that the ‘third party’ did not exist. Most importantly, however, when asked to refrain from writing critical articles, Nazimov refused. When Krasnenkov then said that this would not be required, and that he would be able to criticize, but that they simply wanted him to avoid mentioning ‘United Russia’, he promised to think about it. The Dictaphone machine on which this less than incriminating conversation was taped disappeared, and in court it transpired that Krasnenkov’s ‘acquaintances’ had transcribed what was allegedly on it, and he had not even listened to it.
The defence has already applied for this ‘recording’ to be removed from the case.
The lapses of memory went much deeper since Krasnenkov, when questioned, proved to not remember how he had reported the ‘extortion’ and who exactly was alleged to have tried to extort money from him.
Ladin is convinced that the FSB is behind what he views as an elaborate provocation. 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’ and they are adamant that this is the reason for their imprisonment.