Tuesday’s shitshow Morning, noon, and night, here’s how Russian journalist Ivan Safronov’s arrest and treason hearing unfolded on day one
On July 7, federal agents arrested “Roscosmos” communications adviser and former Kommersant and Vedomosti correspondent Ivan Safronov on suspicion of high treason. The authorities also searched his home and office, as well as the apartment of his ex-girlfriend, Holod Media editor-in-chief Taisiya Bekbulatova (a former Meduza correspondent). Outside the Federal Security Service’s headquarters in Lubyanka Square, during Safronov’s arraignment hearing, dozens of journalists picketed, each taking turns holding up signs in his defense, and police officers arrested them, one by one, for an unlawful assembly. Here’s a detailed rundown of everything Meduza’s correspondents witnessed on day one of the Safronov affair.
Arrest and search
Federal Security Service agents arrest Ivan Safronov in the morning outside his home, as he leaves for work.
The charges are soon revealed: Safronov is suspected of committing high treason by collecting state secrets about Russia’s national defense and military-technical cooperation and transmitting the information to an intelligence agency in a NATO member state. He will face 12 to 20 years in prison.
Оne of Safronov’s lawyers, Ivan Pavlov, later explained that federal prosecutors accuse him of leaking classified information about Russia’s defense ties to a certain African Middle Eastern country. Safronov supposedly shared the data with Czech intelligence agents, who were allegedly operating under U.S. supervision.
Only 30 years old, Ivan Safronov became a communications adviser to Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin in May 2020 after a decade in journalism as a correspondent who reported mainly about Russia’s Army and space industry for the newspapers Kommersant and then briefly Vedomosti.
In a press release after Safronov’s arrest, Roscosmos says it is “rendering all possible assistance to federal investigators” and insists that the allegations have nothing to do with his role at the state corporation. Rogozin later tells the news agency TASS that Safronov had no access to classified information at Roscosmos. He also praises Safronov’s professionalism and expresses confidence that the authorities will “handle the case objectively.” Roscosmos press secretary Vladimir Ustimenko also confirms that Safronov passed a background check before he was hired.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov later tells reporters that the charges against Safronov aren’t related to his work as a journalist. Peskov also says a few kind words about Safronov’s career at Kommersant and Vedomosti, while reiterating that Russian counterintelligence is “high quality.”
Following the arrest, Meduza, Vedomosti, Kommersant, RBC, and several other news outlets, as well as dozens of journalists, publish statements in Safronov’s defense.
When Dmitry Katchev, a lawyer who previously defended Safronov in a defamation case, reads about the arrest, he hurries to Safronov’s home, where federal agents are still conducting a search. The FSB refuses to let him inside, however. Instead, officials hand him a summons for questioning as a witness in the case and tell him that this revokes his right to represent Safronov’s legal interests. (The Lefortovo District Court would later reject this logic.)
At Roscosmos, federal agents spend the day searching Safronov’s office. Hours after arresting him, they also raid the home of his ex-girlfriend, fellow journalist Taisiya Bekbulatova. She, too, is interrogated as a witness in the case and denied access to legal representation. Her lawyer, Anri Tsiskarishvili, tells Meduza that he has no comment at this time. Bekbulatova says she can’t discuss the interrogation or the details of the search due to a gag order. Nevertheless, she later goes to the Lefortovo District Court to show her support for Safronov.
Safronov’s case is headed by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Chaban of the FSB Investigative Branch’s 1st Department, which specializes in treason and espionage. Chaban previously led the investigation of Viktor Kudryavtsev, the 76-year-old Russian scientist accused of passing confidential data from a state research center to a group of his Belgian colleagues via email.
On social media, speculation buzzes about how Safronov’s reporting could have prompted treason allegations. According to one popular theory, the charges are a response to an article that appeared in March 2019 in Kommersant about Russia supplying Egypt with Su-35 fighter jets.
After the story was published, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened Cairo with sanctions if it bought Russian warplanes. In June 2019, an anonymous source told TASS that Kommersant’s publishing house could be held liable for disclosing protected state information. The TASS story never specified what in Safronov’s report was classified, but the article itself later disappeared from Kommersant (an archived copy is still available), apparently due to the anonymous source’s warning, according to journalists at Forbes Russia. Court records indicate that the only administrative lawsuit against Kommersant at the time was filed on May 24. On June 5, after the newspaper unpublished Safronov’s report, the charges were dropped.
Kommersant editor-in-chief Vladimir Zhelonkin says Russia’s authorities haven’t contacted the newspaper about the treason investigation. Outside the Lefortovo District Courthouse, during Safronov’s arraignment hearing, the co-author of the story about Egypt’s fighter jets, Alexandra Zhordzhivich, tells Meduza that she hasn’t heard from the FSB, either.
Arraignment and detention
At the FSB’s Investigative Branch building in Moscow on Energeticheskaya Street, guards refuse to admit three different defense attorneys who demand to see Safronov: Oleg Eliseyev of the “Open Russia Human Rights” project, Sergey Malyukin, and Dmitry Katchev. The only lawyer present during Safronov’s FSB interrogation is Mikhail Bayev, an appointed counsel. The three defense attorneys then relocate to the Lefortovo District Courthouse for the arraignment hearing, where they’re joined by another two lawyers: Ivan Pavlov of the “Team 29” human rights group and Evgeny Smirnov from the “Freedom of Information Foundation.”
Alexander Chaban, the tall, broad-shouldered lieutenant colonel responsible for the Safronov investigation, is also at the courthouse. Dressed in his FSB uniform, he stands confidently in a hallway and smiles as he dismisses Ivan Pavlov’s questions about procedural issues in the case.
When Safronov arrives, he’s in handcuffs and under escort. Masked federal agents, apparently unhappy about the media presence in the building, drag him past the journalists and into the courtroom, where he’s given a final shove into the defendant’s cage (a barred enclosure to separate suspects from everyone else in the room). Before he’s taken inside, however, Safronov manages to tell the reporters in the hallway that he maintains his innocence.
Before the hearing begins, the Lefortovo District Court’s press service allows photographers and camera operators to record images of Safronov in the courtroom. The room is small and other correspondents are then admitted in turns. From inside his box, Safronov nods at his old colleagues and confers with his lawyers.
Judge Sergey Ryabtsev announces that the Federal Security Service would like to close Safronov’s hearing to the public. The defense urges the judge to consider the request only after it’s had a chance to review the case materials. Safronov is asked to introduce himself, and he says laconically: “Unmarried. Place of work: adviser to the general director of Roscosmos. Residency registration: Moscow.”
The hearing then returns to the FSB’s insistence on secrecy. The judge considers a request from an unnamed deputy director in the Investigative Branch’s 1st Department. Lieutenant Colonel Chaban says the entire treason case is classified, including the materials submitted to the court. Safronov’s lawyers, on the other hand, say they should at least be allowed to see the charges and assess the merits of the investigators’ claims.
The three defense attorneys try to discourage the judge from closing the hearing to the public on the basis of the FSB’s letter, arguing that it doesn’t constitute a formal legal petition, doesn’t cite the content of the classified case materials, and only discusses investigatory privilege, not national security. The state prosecutor says he supports the FSB’s letter and asks the judge to consider it his own official petition for a closed hearing. Over the objections of Safronov’s lawyers, the judge agrees and the journalists in the courtroom are forced to leave.
Reporters are readmitted to the courtroom briefly to learn that Safronov will be jailed for at least two months, as the case moves forward. After the hearing, his lawyers meet with journalists and explain the charges publicly for the first time.
Since 2012, Safronov has supposedly been collaborating with Czech intelligence, which was in turn collecting information for the U.S. Three years ago, he allegedly transmitted information to his handlers about Russia’s military-technical cooperation with a certain Middle East African country. Investigators say Safronov sent the data over the Internet using unspecified encryption methods. Ivan Pavlov says the case file shared with the court contained no corroborating evidence. Kommersant subsequently reported that Safronov allegedly received encrypted instructions in 2017 to gather intelligence about Russia’s military-technical cooperation with African countries and the actions of the Russian military in the Middle East.
Defense attorney Evgeny Smirnov tells Meduza that Safronov’s team was only allowed to see the FSB’s criminal-case commencement order, arrest warrant, and interrogation transcript (where Safronov refused to offer testimony). So far, Smirnov says, the lawyers are under a gag order applicable only to state secrets.
Ivan Pavlov notes that the FSB hasn’t yet presented any expert testimony, which is usually available right away, which he says could indicate that the case against Safronov is especially weak. He also reveals that the FSB’s case file is already seven volumes thick. “They’ve had your colleague under surveillance for a long time,” he tells the journalists outside the courtroom.
Safronov will return to court on Monday, July 13, when he’ll be formally indicted and questioned again.
Picketing and arrests
As early as 2 p.m., demonstrators start lining up outside the FSB’s headquarters in Lubyanka Square to picket against Safronov’s arrest. Kommersant special correspondent Elena Chernenko, the first picketer of the day, tells Meduza that she worked alongside Safronov for nearly a decade and considers the treason allegations to be inconceivable. “He may not advocate a stronger state, but he’s a patriot, and he’d never in his life sell any information that could hurt Russia to foreigners or NATO intelligence agencies,” says Chernenko.
Chernenko is also the first to be arrested by police. As she speaks to reporters about her protest, officers argue that it’s illegal for her to give interviews while picketing. Before long, she’s escorted into a police van where she’ll soon have company. As the picketing continues, the police sometimes arrest demonstrators so quickly that they scarcely have time to unfurl their banners and make a statement about the Safronov case. After an hour and a half, police reinforcements arrive and gradually fence off the area, urging picketers to go home.
More demonstrators arrive to replace those who have been arrested. “I might not have even come. I was sure that everyone would show up now and everything would be okay. It never occurred to me that these lovely citizens [the police] would decide to arrest us all,” Russia Today chief editor Maria Baronova tells Meduza, adding that she’s confident Safronov will be released. Moments later, she herself is arrested.
In the evening, Meduza special correspondent Liliya Yapparova is arrested seconds after unfolding a sign that reads: “Freedom for Ivan Safronov!”
Before the night is done, police arrest 28 people in total. Most of them are journalists, but a few bystanders find themselves in custody, as well. This is what happens to Alexandra Popova, who comes to Lubyanka Square to help escort MBK Media reporter Anastasia Olshanskaya to medical aid, after she’s knocked to the ground and injures her head when socialite Ksenia Sobchak is arrested. Olshanskaya is later diagnosed preliminarily with a concussion.
That evening, all the detainees except for Elena Chernenko are released and charged with a misdemeanor violation of Russia’s laws on picketing. Chernenko, meanwhile, is written up for violating Moscow’s containment measures, which prohibit public gatherings.
Ivan Safronov is now in pretrial detention at Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison.
Summary by Kevin Rothrock