Leading Russian reporter Ivan Safronov completes two years in prison, accused of being "traitor”

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the release of Ivan Safronov, one of Russia’s best known and most respected reporters and author of some major media revelations, who completed his second year in prison on 7 July and is being subjected to a sham trial. His lawyers have themselves become intelligence agency targets and are being prevented from defending him. 

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It was Safronov who, in March 2019, revealed that Russia was selling Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets to Egypt, triggering a diplomatic clash between Russia and the United States. And Safronov was the first reporter to point to the cause of a fire aboard the top-secret nuclear submarine Losharik in July 2019 in which 14 sailors died.

Aged 32, he is now facing a possible 20-year prison sentence on a charge of treason in a trial that began on 5 March.

“Maligned as a traitor to the nation, this journalist is being punished for refusing to reveal his sources,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Ridiculous accusations have been made, no evidence has been made public and the right to defence is being flouted. This case illustrates the executive’s total domination of a justice system that has abandoned all pretence of legality. This judicial persecution must stop and Ivan Safronov must be released.”

Safronov was arrested by the Federal Security Service (FSB) while on his way to his office on 7 July 2020. A highly respected specialist in Russia’s military-industrial complex, he was working as press adviser to the head of Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency. Four months before his arrest, he had resigned from the business daily Vedomosti in protest against editorial meddling by the new owners. He had joined this newspaper after a decade at its rival Kommersant, from which he was fired for refusing to reveal his sources for a story about the senate speaker, said to be close to President Vladimir Putin.

It is his sources that seem to have interested the investigators most. Six days after his arrest, they offered him a deal – a sentence of no more than ten years in prison if he named the sources of some of his stories and pleaded guilty. Revealed by his lawyers, the proposed deal contradicted presidential spokesman Dmitri Peskov’s claim that Safronov’s arrest was not related to his journalistic activities.

Safronov is accused of passing classified information to a Czech friend working for the Czech intelligence services and to a political scientist who allegedly passed the information on to the German intelligence services. In the second case, Safronov is said to have been paid 248 US dollars for his information.

The details of the case are classified, the trial is being held behind closed doors and his lawyers are subject to a confidentiality clause. The court, located in the Moscow district of Lefortovo, allowed them only two weeks in late January and early February 2022 to familiarise themselves with the 10,000-page case file in an FSB building, with no possibility of taking photos or notes. It was clear from this enormous file that Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) had been monitoring Safronov’s communications and personal computer for years.

Defence right violations have been flagrant during the trial. During a hearing in June, Safronov was unable to submit requests to the court because the documents prepared for him by his lawyers were confiscated at the prison where he is being held before he could read them. His requests to the court are anyway being systematically denied. The constraints imposed on his defence lawyers include being denied access to the minutes of the hearings and being banned from using a laptop in the courtroom, a right nonetheless granted to the prosecutors.

One of his lawyers is no longer able to make any contribution to his defence. Dmitri Talantov was arrested on 28 June on a charge of “discrediting the Russian army.” Two of his other defence lawyers, Yevgeny Smirnov and Ivan Pavlov, were previously forced to flee the country after the FSB initiated proceedings against them in connection with the case.

As well as being detained provisionally for longer than the legally permitted 18 months, Safronov has also been prevented from calling and receiving visits from family members.

Safronov’s courage is undoubtedly inspired by that of his father, a well-known Kommersant reporter who also specialised in defence issues. Ivan Safronov Sr died in a mysterious fall from his apartment building in 2007 that the authorities claimed was suicide. Aged 51, he had been investigating Russian arms sales to the Middle East at the time.

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