Russia - Relentless legal persecution of two journalists in Rostov-on-Don

Journalist and blogger Sergei Reznik is facing his second trial this week in Rostov-on-Don (South), only three weeks after a lengthy prison sentence for his colleague Aleksandr Tolmachev. Both are known for investigating corruption and criticizing local officials.

Reporters Without Borders condemns again the ceaseless legal pursuit of the two independent journalists. Sergei Reznik, previously sentenced to 18 months in penal colony, is being prosecuted again for alleged “insult” to State officials and perjury. Aleksandr Tolmachev, his colleague, received a heavy prison sentence in October on an extortion conviction. He had spent years in preventive detention before sentencing.

New trial for Reznik

Sergei Reznik made many enemies. He investigated the widespread corruption that plagues Rostov-on-Don and criticized officials, especially Governor Vasily Golubev, in articles in Yuzhny Ferderalny, in the online Novaya Gazeta v Yuzhnom Federalnom and in his blog.

On 24 July, the new “insult” case was opened against him, under Article 319 of the Penal Code. Roman Klimov, former regional deputy prosecutor; Dmitry Ishtshenko, head of the General Directorate for Combating Extremism; and Andrei Glinkin, a Rostov police officer, accuse the journalist of having libelled them in articles on his blog. The police officer is also suing him for alleged perjury concerning a serious crime (under Article 206-2 of the Penal Code). If the journalist is found guilty, he faces a maximum three years of additional imprisonment.

Even before he has finished serving his first sentence, Sergei Reznik is being brought to court by the very people on whom he has reported critically,” said Johann Bihr, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk of Reporters Without Borders. “Multiple procedural errors and weak evidence show that his case is nothing but a continuation of reprisals for his journalistic work. We ask that the journalist’s right to a fair trial be respected, and that the legal investigation be transferred to another venue.

The trial began on 20 August and has been taking place partly behind closed doors. A defence request to replace the judge and the prosecutor, who held the same positions in Reznik’s first trial, has been rejected. The defence contends that the judge has falsified a number of official documents.

In addition, while the journalist was to have been sent to the penal colony after his first sentence, he is being held – at the prosecutor’s request - in solitary confinement, where conditions are far harsher.

Janna Pavlova, the journalist’s lawyer, has stated that she will file cases concerning the violation of the defendant’s rights with the Constitutional Court of Russia and with the European Court of Human Rights.

Reznik had been sentenced on 26 November of last year to 18 months in penal colony, on convictions as varied as corruption, perjury, and insulting a government official. Despite a strong civil society protest on his behalf, the verdict was upheld on appeal on 15 April. The journalist was recognized on 21 January by human rights organization Memorial as a political prisoner.

Aleksandr Tolmachev sentenced after three years of preventive detention

Despite serious health problems, Tolmachev spent nearly three years in preventive detention before he was sentenced on 29 October to nine years at hard labour in a penal colony. The editor in chief of the magazine Upolnomochen Zayavit and of the Pro Rostov newspaper was found guilty of extortion (under Article 163 of the Penal Code) of a Novocherkassk businessman, from whom the editor allegedly demand one million rubles for not publishing compromising information. Tolmachev has appealed the verdict.

At the defendant’s request, the case was transferred in January to a court in the Krasnodar region. The request centred on the presence on the jury of people on whom the journalist had reported critically. But the change of venue did not prevent continuation of procedural errors. Of the 50 witnesses listed in the indictment, only seven testified in court. Two young women reported that they had been forced to sign pre-written affidavits against Tolmachev.

The trial’s change of venue to a place about 100 kilometers from the defendant’s home city does not suffice to protect the rights of Aleksandr Tolmachev, who has received an extremely heavy sentence,” Bihr said. “A comprehensive appeal must be mounted so that the journalist can finally receive a fair trial. Until then, he must be granted parole. He has been arbitrarily confined for far too long.

Tolmachev was arrested on 20 December 2011 and was immediately placed in preventive detention, in solitary confinement, on the pretext that his journalistic activities could prejudice the judicial investigation.

Russia is ranked 148th of 180 counties in the Reporters Without Borders2014 world press freedom index.

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