‘Common sense, not patriotism, wins’ Interview with the Russian journalist who faced six years in prison for allegedly ‘justifying terrorism’
On July 3, prosecutors in the case against Radio Svoboda journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva — who stands accused of justifying terrorism — made their sentencing recommendation to the military court that will decide her fate: six years in a correctional labor facility. A ruling is expected on Monday, July 6. The investigation against Prokopyeva began more than a year ago in February 2019, after she wrote an article about a terrorist attack against a Federal Security Service building in Arkhangelsk. In the text, Prokopyeva wrote that “the state itself raised” the generation now fighting against it. Ahead of Monday’s verdict, Meduza special correspondent Maxim Solopov spoke to Prokopyeva to find out how her trial has progressed in the past year and why she thinks Russia’s authorities have decided to make a public example of her.
Svetlana Prokopyeva’s trial started less than a month ago. The military court hearing her case is operating on assignment and has no reason to draw things out, she says. Investigators spent more than a year collecting evidence, but prosecutors abandoned two secret witnesses before the beginning of the trial: one who claimed that Prokopyeva’s colleagues coordinated their testimonies to protect her and another who described Prokopyeva as a radical anti-Kremlin activist.
Instead, the state is relying on textual analyses from three experts, though each of these witnesses apparently refuses to identify any specific passages in Prokopyeva’s article that supposedly justify terrorism, she says. For example, one of these experts — a woman named Natalia Pikalyova — told the court that she examined the text “in full,” not in excerpts. It’s these vague allegations that could result in a six-year prison sentence.
“If you’re talking about the justification of terrorism, show it in either my words or your own. There’s nothing of the sort — no such phrases — that can be interpreted as a justification of terrorism. It’s complete nonsense,” says Prokopyeva, who recognizes that her case has gone “too far” to expect acquittal. “If it goes to trial, it’s considered already proven,” she told Meduza.
According to 2020 data, acquittals in Russia account for just 0.36 percent of all verdicts by judges. Prokopyeva says she might have hoped for exoneration in a jury trial, but juries aren’t permitted in Russia in cases related to terrorism. “All I pray for is that I’m not sentenced to prison. I truly hope not. But such awareness that I’m right and my certainty in my own innocence won’t replace the lost years and months,” she says.
Not the only one
Svetlana Prokopyeva is not the only person the Russian authorities have prosecuted recently for “justifying terrorism” — a felony introduced in 2016 as part of a series of anti-terrorism laws. In May 2020, for instance, state investigators in Voronezh charged a local woman named Nadezhda Belova with publicly justifying terrorism in comments posted on VKontakte about the same suicide attack on the FSB building in Arkhangelsk.
Belova’s comment — posted before federal investigators even classified the Arkhangelsk bombing as a terrorist attack — mentioned “Ryazan sugar,” referring to a device found in an apartment block in Ryazan in September 1999 during a series of bombings. (Officially, the device was a harmless sack of sugar used in FSB training exercises, but conspiracy theorists contend that it was part of a false-flag operation staged by the FSB to justify Vladimir Putin’s decision to renew Russia’s war against Chechnya). In other words, Belova connected the FSB to a theory that the agency is responsible for a series of terrorist attacks 21 years ago.
Prokopyeva says prosecutors are only using the VKontakte post as an excuse. She told Meduza that the police dug up Belova’s comment only after she turned to local politics and joined a civic campaign against the construction of a bus depot.
“This is simply vivid proof of the repressive nature of our law-enforcement system,” says Prokopyeva. “When they go looking for formal pretexts that mean nothing, when there’s no real public threat and no crime in fact that must be punished or prevented. It’s just an instrument of the law used to persecute. And it’s an absolutely terrifying situation.”
Prosecutors have gone after other Internet users for comments about the Arkhangelsk bombing, as well. Ekaterina Muranova was charged with justifying terrorism for sharing a photo of the suicide bomber with the caption: “Rest in peace, hero!” She avoided prison time, but now owes a fine of 350,000 rubles (almost $5,000). A man named Vyacheslav Lukichev was also caught calling the bomber “a hero.” He was fined 300,000 rubles (about $4,200) and allegedly tortured by the police for 36 hours after his arrest.
While these cases would seem to suggest that Prokopyeva has good reason to expect a fine and not prison time, there’s also Ivan Lyubshin, who was recently sentenced to five years and two months behind bars for calling the Arkhangelsk bomber a hero. When sentenced, however, Lyubshin still had two months of probation left to serve of a previous conviction.
Prokopyeva doesn’t have any priors, but she says she still worries about being locked up. There are people in Sochi and Tolyatti who have gotten two years in prison in similar cases, she told Meduza.
Now a hostage of terrorism
Whatever the nature of her likely conviction, Prokopyeva says she plans to appeal the ruling. She’s already filed a challenge with the European Court of Human Rights against the search of her home by police, arguing that officers violated the secrecy of her sources by raiding a journalist’s apartment.
“Of course, it’s impossible for a normal journalist to propagate terrorism under any circumstances. That’s psychopath stuff,” she told Meduza. “My article criticizes the state and it criticizes state policy and the state authorities. And I had every right to make these criticisms and I still have this right — the right to criticize what I consider to be wrong.”
As for the practice itself of policing “justifications of terrorism,” Prokopyeva says the justice system isn’t the best approach. “Society handles such foolish outbursts far better — social stigmatization here is far more effective than when administered by the courts,” she told Meduza. Prokopyeva says these cases would end if state investigators and prosecutors simply stopped pursuing them. Nothing would happen to these officials if they backed off, she claims, but there’s apparently no “political will” to make this change.
The fight against terrorism, however, is perhaps not the driving force behind these prosecutions. According to Prokopyeva, the authorities are less interested in punishing Russians for praising terrorists than silencing activists outside the big cities. The cases involving the Arkhangelsk bombing, for example, have been entirely outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, despite the fact that much of the online commentary about the terrorist attack came from Internet users in these metropolises.
Prokopyeva says she thinks she was targeted not so much for her journalism as her volunteer work in anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny’s 2017 presidential campaign. She says these cases demonstrate selective law enforcement against oppositionists, not state concerns about people getting too emotional on social media. These investigations and prosecutions are how state officials make their careers, she says.
Though Prokopyeva believes it was her work with Navalny’s campaign that painted a target on her back, she also acknowledges that she’s become something of a hostage to terrorism, now that the subject dominates her journalism and public identity.
Asked about being a journalist, Prokopyeva says she considers it her duty to be a “barometer” that “identifies problems and facilitates their resolution.” She says she’s told the investigators in her case that it’s important to discuss the reasons for terrorist attacks, so they’re not repeated. Officials have not responded to these overtures, however. She says she’s encountered only bureaucratic indifference.
If she’s still a free woman after Monday’s verdict, will Prokopyeva consider leaving the country to avoid life on a terrorism watchlist? She told Meduza that she plans to stay in Russia, if only because she relies on her language skills to earn her livelihood as a journalist. She admits that she has started questioning her faith in her homeland, but “practically speaking, it’s ordinary common sense, not patriotism, that wins out.”
Summary by Kevin Rothrock