Russian journalist fined in case that drew broad outrage

A court in northwestern Russia has convicted a journalist on charges of condoning terrorism and ordered her to pay a fine in a case that has been broadly condemned as an attack on freedom of speech

MOSCOW -- A Russian journalist on Monday was convicted on charges of condoning terrorism and ordered to pay a fine in a case that has been widely criticized as an attack on freedom of speech.

The court in the city of Pskov found Svetlana Prokopyeva guilty of “justifying terrorism” and ordered her to pay a fine of 500,000 rubles (about $6,950). Prosecutors had asked for a six-year prison sentence for Prokopyeva.

Speaking to several dozen journalists and supporters who waited for her outside the court building, Prokopyeva thanked them for their backing.

“If it weren't for you, I wouldn’t have walked out of here like that,” she said with a smile. “It's your achievement that I'm walking out without a (police) convoy.”

The case of Prokopyeva stems from a commentary she published in the wake of an October 2018 suicide attack, in which a 17-year-old Russian man blew himself up at the entrance of the office of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, in the northern city of Arkhangelsk. The attacker was killed and three FSB officers were injured.

In her commentary, Prokopyeva criticized repressive government policies, arguing that they leave little chance for the young people to express their discontent and drive them to despair.

Prokopyeva, a freelance contributor to RFE/RL’s Russian Service, has maintained her innocence, rejecting the charges as an attack on freedom of speech.

“I am not afraid to criticize law enforcement or tell the security organs that they are wrong," Prokopyeva said in her final statement Friday. "Because I know how really horrific it will become if I don’t speak out — if no one speaks out.”

She insisted that she only did her work as a journalist.

“I did not do anything that was beyond the framework of my professional duty,” Prokopyeva told the court "And that is not a crime.”

Prokopyeva said she would appeal the verdict.

Human rights groups and media watchdogs in Russia and abroad have criticized the charges against Prokopyeva as an attempt to trample on freedom of speech and demanded her acquittal.

RFE/RL denounced the verdict as an escalation in Russian authorities' attacks on the independent press.

“Svetlana’s conviction means that there is no presumption of innocence, no protections for journalists against the brute force of the state,” RFE/RL Acting President Daisy Sindelar said. “Her case recalls the show trials that were used by Soviet authorities to punish critics. It is a grim assault against free speech and the mission of an independent press.”

Amnesty International said Prokopyeva's conviction reflected the intent of Russian authorities to repress freedom of expression. The rights group urged Russia to annul the ruling and to "ensure that counter-terrorism legislation is not used to gag government critics, stop discussions of public interest or penalize independent journalists.”

Asked about the verdict, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, denied that it represented an attack on media freedom. Peskov said the ruling reflected “legal nuances” related to Russia's counterterrorism law.

The European Union criticized Prokopyeva's prosecution as “testimony to the ever-shrinking space for independent journalism and civil society in the Russian Federation over recent years."

It pointed out that “incidents of intimidation, threats and violence against journalists are frequently reported, while the fundamental freedoms of expression and freedom of the media in the country are repressed and severely curtailed, including through politically motivated arrests and court proceedings,” such as the one against Prokopyeva.

“We expect the Russian Federation to uphold its international and domestic obligations and ensure that journalists are able to work in a safe environment without fear of reprisal,” European Commission spokesman Peter Stano said in a statement.

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Raf Casert and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.

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A previous version of this story was corrected to show that the suicide attack happened in October 2018, not November 2018.