Dubious investigation into Sochi-based investigative reporter

Reporters Without Borders is disturbed by all the inconsistencies and procedural violations marking an investigation into Nikolai Yarst (Николай Ярст), an experienced freelance journalist who is under house arrest in the southern city of Sochi on a charge of illegal possession of drugs.

Yarst, who was working for public TV station OTR at the time of his arrest on 23 May, is facing a possible 10-year jail sentence under article 228 of the criminal code.

“Many questions need answering,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Why have there been contradictory versions of Yarst’s arrest? Has it been confirmed that his fingerprints were not on the envelope containing the drugs? Why did the police take a week to realize his clothes had traces of drugs and can that be considered evidence if those traces have now disappeared? And if he really was a drug addict, why would he have drugs in his car while on his way to a meeting with the police?

“Yarst’s latest story implicated the Sochi police, a member of which had also had a personal argument with him, so the utmost care is needed. The best way to get at the truth would be to order an additional investigation and assign it to someone else. The allegations by Yarst’s lawyer of serious procedural violations must be taken into account. If it turns out the charges were fabricated to block Yarst’s investigations, all necessary conclusions must be drawn.”

On 23 May, Yarst and his cameraman Philip Vasilenko (Филипп Василенко) were heading to an appointment at the Sochi office of the Investigative Committee (Russia’s FBI equivalent) in the hope of getting information for a story they were working on.

Their car was stopped en route by a traffic policeman who – while refusing to identify himself, – said the car was the subject of a police bulletin. However, according to the version later given by the interior ministry, the car was stopped because of a traffic violation and was searched because the driver and passenger were behaving “strangely.”

Either way, many other policemen immediately arrived at the scene and one of them allegedly discovered the envelope containing drugs on the back seat.

Yarst was arrested, given drug tests, and was charged with illegal possession of drugs. After two days in policy custody and the start of a campaign for his release, he was released and placed under judicial control.

A week later, the police said they had found traces of drugs on the clothes he was wearing at the time of his arrest, although the traces were so slight that nothing remained. A new order was then issued putting him under house arrest for two months, and forbidding him to communicate with anyone except his lawyer and the investigating judge.

The investigation was concluded in record time on 7 June and an additional investigation was ordered – for just one day. Yarst’s lawyers are currently being informed of the evidence against him, which has to be endorsed by the prosecutor’s office and then passed to the court. Yarst denies the charges, which he claims were fabricated in response to the story he was working on.

At the time of his arrest, Yarst was investigating the case of a seven-year-old girl who remained in the custody of her mother’s partner after the mother’s death. A court ordered that the girl, who had inherited land and real estate, be placed in her father’s custody but the police and Investigative Committee did not comply, suggesting complicity with the mother’s partner.

The defence also thinks the fabrication might be linked to an argument Yarst had on 20 April with a person who identified himself as a colonel in the local police and who reportedly threatened him with “reprisals.”

Many journalists and local human rights groups, including the Union of Russian Journalists, have condemned the charges against Yarst and are campaigning for their dismissal. A press conference with Yarst’s lawyers will be held in Sochi at 3 p.m. on 27 June.

Sochi’s hosting of the 2014 Winter Olympics is being used by Reporters Without Borders for a campaign to draw attention to the state of freedom of information in Russia and to express support for Russian civil society.