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The curious case of the unbroken microphone Everything you need to know about the latest controversial criminal charges against a supporter of Alexey Navalny

Source: Meduza
Photo: Evgeny Kurskov / TASS / Scanpix

The Novosibirsk District Attorney has confirmed indictments in the so-called "Microphone Case" and asked to transfer the case to a regional court. The accused is Leonid Volkov, the campaign manager for an opposition group this past fall and one of the closest associates of opposition politician Alexey Navalny. According to investigators, in July 2015, Volkov apparently tried to tear a microphone out the hands of LifeNews journalist Alexander Postupinsky. The microphone was allegedly damaged in the process. Later, after experts verified the working order of the microphone, Postupinksky gave an additional statement saying that Volkov had "forcibly grabbed his left arm and caused physical pain.” As a result, Volkov is being charged under the Russian Criminal Code's rather exotic Article 144: obstructing the legitimate activities of a journalist. If convicted, he faces up to six years in prison. Meduza special correspondent Andrei Kozenko reports on the details of the "Microphone Case." 

The incident took place on July 17, 2015, in Novosibirsk. The Democratic Coalition, under the flag of PARNAS (the Party of People's Freedom), was attempting to register candidates to take part in Russian territorial elections. In Novosibirsk, as in other cities, the activities of opposition members were continually dogged by scandals. Certain unknown persons hacked Volkov's phone, someone else ordered pizzas to the coalition's headquarters (where activists had announced a hunger strike to protest authorities' refusal to register candidates from the Democratic Coalition in several local contests), and then excrement was thrown at the office.

On July 17, around ten activists from the National Liberation Movement (NOD), a patriotic, "anti-Maidan" political group led by State Duma Deputy Yevgeny Fyodorov, broke into the coalition's office, along with associates from LifeNews. One of these associates, journalist Alexander Postupinsky, got in the faces of Leonid Volkov and Alexey Navalny.

Navalny's camp has long held an open dislike of LifeNews and other media close to the Kremlin. And the antipathy is undoubtedly mutual. As the NOD activists chanted "shame upon traitors of the motherland!” remaining footage of the incident shows Postupinsky trying to push his way toward Navalny. Volkov refused to let him through, however. When the correspondent asks, “What's with you? You want to break my arm?” Volkov's response is undecipherable. Then Postupinsky begins to repeat, "Let go of the microphone." Finally, the NOD supporters start hurling eggs, and the two men separate.

Almost a week later, on July 23, Postupinsky filed a report against Volkov with the police. (Volkov is convinced this took place at the request of the LifeNews editorial staff.) Postupinsky's statement says Volkov damaged his microphone. A receipt from the news outlet's Moscow office swiftly followed, valuing the microphone at nearly 37,000 rubles (almost $600). Notably, Postupinsky twice indicated that Volkov did not cause him any bodily harm.

Meanwhile, an expert examination found that the microphone still works, albeit far from in pristine condition. No one specifies how the microphone was damaged, except to say that Volkov is responsible. Weeks later, on September 8, Postupinsky filed a new police report, this time claiming that Volkov caused him physical harm by injuring his left arm. Thus, Volkov went from being a suspect in a misdemeanor to felony.

The Russian Criminal Code's Article 144, which Volkov allegedly broke by attacking a journalist on the job, is extremely rare in the legal profession, because of its rather vague wording. The article indicts “the hindering of legitimate professional activities of journalists by either forcing them to disseminate or forcing them to refuse to disseminate information." According to this logic, the perpetrator can be anyone who strongly asks a journalist to report or not to report on something. As a result, the article is rarely applied. According to the Glasnost Defense Foundation, across all of Russia from 2005 through 2014, the article has been invoked in only 200 cases. The majority of these cases did make it to court. Of the few that reached sentencing, only ten of the cases favored journalists.

Alexei Navalny and Leonid Volkov speaking with representatives from the National Liberation Movement on July 17, 2015.
Photo: Cyril Kuhmar / Kommersant

The extensive court decision database RosPravosudiye considers Article 144 case law precedents to be technically faulty in general. The database refers users to a page of decisions listing more coherent criminal offenses, such as disorderly conduct and the purchasing of narcotics. 

In 2011, there was an attempt to indict musician Valery Meladze using Article 144. On his way from a social event, Meladze assaulted a photojournalist from Komsomolskaya Pravda for attempting to photograph him. Although the press made much of the issue, the case never reached court. 

Still earlier in 2009, three people hindering cameramen from filming a road accident in the Krasnodar region received fines and community service. During the case, defense lawyers demanded the incident be reclassified under a more intelligible charge, such as battery.

In December 2014, the Russian Investigative Committee opened a case against Ukrainian Security Service Head Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, for obstructing the work of the TV channels Zvezda and (again) LifeNews. This is hardly shocking, however, as there are few high-ranking Ukrainian officials—especially in the security forces—against whom Russia's Investigative Committee has not launched criminal cases. Even on this long list of charges, Article 144 is not among the main indictments.

On the morning of October 19, Volkov received a bill of indictment from the Novosibirsk District Attorney. “It's 74 pages,” he told Meduza. “This is nothing unusual. Allegedly, the crime has already been proved. There are testimonies from around 20 witnesses. That's practically everyone who was in our headquarters' courtyard, when it all happened. Then again, this assumes that the testimonies from the NOD members are reliable and trustworthy. Testimonies from our own staff members are recognized as contradictory and indicate that I'm not liable. It's all the same as usual.”

The case file has been submitted to the Novosibirsk Central District Court. A date for the preliminary hearing is set. 

Volkov intends to remain in Russia and to attend all court sessions. “We are fully committed and intend to prove I am completely innocent and that nothing criminal occurred," he said. Keeping to his word, Volkov went directly from the District Attorney to the police, where he filed a report on giving deliberately misleading information against Postupinsky, two Novosibirsk LifeNews editorial staff members, and the head of LifeNews Holdings, Aram Gabrelyanov. Volkov asserts they lied to the police in claiming the microphone was damaged.

Alexander Postupinsky refused to speak with Meduza. First, the Novosibirsk LifeNews editorial office informed Meduza that Postupinsky was working at a photoshoot. The office then called back and said that permission for comment could only be authorized by the LifeNews Moscow office. A Meduza correspondent went to the national LifeNews editorial office to place a request for comment. The correspondent was promptly told this was not possible.

The “Microphone Case” is yet another court case directed against Alexey Navalny and his associates. Navalny himself has been tried three times, in the "Kirovles" and "Yves Rocher" cases, and a defamation case brought by Municipal Deputy Alexey Lisovenko. Navalny's brother, Oleg, is currently serving out a prison sentence handed down in the the Yves Rocher case. Another close associate, Georgy Alburov, was convicted of stealing a painting, titled “Bad/Good Person,” from a fence near a train station in the town of Vladimir. Alburov was later amnestied. Several Navalny supporters are now living abroad. Among these people is Vladimir Ashurkov, who recently received political refugee status in the United Kingdom.

Andrey Kozenko

Moscow