Reporters Without Borders (RSF) strongly condemns the detention of Igor Rudnikov, an outspoken journalist in Russia’s western enclave of Kaliningrad, in an apparent attempt to close the weekly newspaper he edits, Novye Kolesa, one of the region’s few independent media outlets.
Rudnikov, who is also a member of the Kaliningrad regional assembly, was subjected to violence when arrested on 1 November and was placed in pre-trial detention two days later on charges that strongly suggest an act of political revenge. RSF calls for his immediate release.
The security personnel who arrested Rudnikov acted as if he were a dangerous criminal. He lost consciousness a few hours after his arrest and, according to the doctors who examined him, he had sustained a broken arm and several contusions.
At 2 a.m. on 2 November, members of the Federal Security Service (FSB) nonetheless fetched him from the hospital where he had been taken in order to conduct a search of his home and then, still in the early hours of the morning, take him in his underwear before a judicial investigator.
Although his health is poor as a result of two attempts to murder him, in 1998 and 2016, he was placed in provisional detention for at least two months on the evening of 3 November. Masked men in camouflage attire meanwhile conducted a search of Novye Kolesa.
Rudnikov is facing a possible 15-year jail sentence on a charge of blackmailing Gen. Viktor Ledenev, the head of the local branch of the Investigative Committee, which is responsible for investigating the most serious crimes in Russia.
Novye Kolesa co-founder Svetlana Berezovskaya was arrested at the end of a meeting with Gen. Ledenev during which he gave her 50,000 dollars hidden in package of documents. She was a quickly released and is now being treated as a witness in the case against Rudnikov.
The defence points to the case’s many procedural flaws and the lack of any evidence of actual extortion. Local journalists regard the case as the result of a trap set by Ledenev to get rid of Rudnikov, who had accused him of corruption. Novye Kolesa had suggested, inter alia, that he owned a luxurious country home that had not been declared.
“Too many factors indicate that a crude attempt to close one the region’s few independent media outlets is the real reason for the charges against Igor Rudnikov,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “We call for his immediate release, the withdrawal of all charges, and an investigation into the violence against him at the time of his arrest.”
Rudnikov is well known locally for combatting government corruption and embezzlement. Created in 1995, Novye Kolesa is used to every form of harassment including lawsuits and police raids as well as the attempts to murder its founder.
In the latest of these, in March 2016, Rudnikov was stabbed five times in broad daylight in the centre of Kaliningrad. One of his assailants, a former police officer, was sentenced in June to 18 months in prison on a charge of aggravated assault.
After the verdict was overturned on appeal, the charge was changed to attempted murder but Rudnikov and his fellow journalists have called for it to be amended to “attempted murder of a political or public figure,” a more serious charge that would remove the investigation from the local Investigative Committee’s control.
Russia is ranked 148th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index.