‘The entire country is being held hostage’ Human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov on why the Russian authorities are targeting ex-journalist Ivan Safronov
Interview by Sasha Sivtsova. English-language version by Sam Breazeale.
In July 2020, former Kommersant journalist Ivan Safronov was arrested on treason charges. Over two years later, on August 30, 2022, state prosecutors requested that Safronov be sentenced to 24 years in a high-security penal colony. Safronov stands accused of revealing “state secrets,” even though all of the information he allegedly revealed to Western intelligence agencies is free to access on the Internet. In the leadup to Safronov's sentencing, which is set to take place on September 5, Meduza spoke to human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov, who served on Safronov's defense team until the Russian authorities charged him with disclosing details from a preliminary investigation. Pavlov explained why he thinks the authorities targeted Pavlov, why now, and how the case compares to others he's worked on.
Two years ago, Russian authorities launched a criminal case against Roscosmos advisor Ivan Safronov that sounds absurd on its face: they alleged that in 2017, while working as a journalist, Safronov disclosed “state secrets” about Russian arms sales to the Czech Republic. The charges don’t even make sense on their own terms — as a recent investigation from Proekt demonstrated, all of the information Safronov was accused of divulging is publicly available on the Internet.
“In Russia, the term ‘state secret’ only refers to information that’s protected by law,” lawyer Ivan Pavlov told Meduza. “But if everyone can see the information, like in this case, then it can’t be a state secret by definition.”
Pavlov, who founded the now-defunct human rights organization Team 29, initially served on Safronov’s legal team. In April 2021, however, almost a year after the case against Safronov was initiated, authorities charged Pavlov himself with leaking data from the case. He now lives in exile in Georgia.
For the first year and a half after the Safronov case was opened, Pavlov was perplexed, if not exactly surprised, by the nonsensical charges against his client. But given what we know now, he said, it all makes sense.
“Everything that’s happened [in Russia] for the last few years, since 2020, was in preparation for the war. And Ivan Safronov’s case was just another link in the chain of preparation measures: journalist intimidation. [...] There’s now a [state] monopoly on freedom of speech. Or, more accurately, there’s no more freedom. Speech is still here, but it’s not free,” he said.
In November 2021, the final indictment in Safronov’s case revealed that he stood accused of committing treason not once but twice. As Pavlov explained to Meduza, the second count allowed the prosecution to request a sentence of up to 25 years in prison for Safronov (on August 30, they requested 24 year; the court is set to deliver a verdict on September 5).
“They turned up the heat, adding one absurd accusation to another,” said Pavlov. “That was intended to break him, to make him agree to a deal, to make him stop struggling. Even today [at Safronov’s hearing, prosecutors] offered to request only 12 years if Ivan confessed.”
If it’s difficult to imagine how this kind of bargaining between defendant and prosecution serves the interests of justice, that’s because it’s a holdover from an even less liberal era, according to Pavlov. “It’s the remains of the inquisition system, not even the Soviet one,” he said. “It would be even simpler if torture were legalized — they could just torture [Safronov]. He would confess, and he would cede his right to that burdensome thing called a ‘defense.’”
The holy grail of convictions
Ivan Pavlov’s law career began in the 1990s. When he describes his past cases, many of which involved clients who were accused of treason and espionage, he makes frequent reference to Vladimir Putin’s rise to power — and the options it ruled out for human rights attorneys.
Around the turn of the millenium, for example, Pavlov worked on the case of Grigory Pasko, a military journalist who was targeted by the Russian authorities after he reported on environmental issues in the Sea of Japan. While Pasko was tried in the late 1990s, he wasn’t sentenced until the early aughts.
“I’m confident that if [Pasko’s] final sentence had been handed down in the 1990s, it would have been an acquittal,” said Pavlov. “But he was convicted in the era of Vladimir Putin, who raised the profile and the influence of the FSB. Pasko was sentenced to four years in prison — a sentence three times lower than the minimum [sentence for his charges as prescribed by the Russian criminal code].”
In other words, rather than run afoul of the newly emboldened FSB by exonerating Pasko, the court simply gave him an unusually light sentence. As Pavlov put it, they “threw a bone to the defense."
And Pasko’s case came early in the Putin era. Since then, Pavlov said, the incentive structure governing the FSB has only gotten more out of whack.
“There are FSB operatives embedded in everything — in all spheres of public life,” he said. “The entire country is being held hostage by the FSB. And treason cases are very attractive [to FSB agents]; they can make the careers of the specific people who are involved in surveillance. They seek out people to turn into victims, people to target.”
Pavlov named two factors that can make a person an especially valuable surveillance target for the FSB. First, the person must have access to sensitive information. “And the scope of what constitutes ‘sensitive’ information has grown wider every year,” he said. The second factor, he told Meduza, is communication with foreigners.
“If someone meets both of those criteria, that person may receive extra attention and can become a target [of heavy surveillance]. If the person sends any information to a foreign entity, the agent will look at it and decide whether it includes anything that could entail a state secret. If so, [the agent] has hit the jackpot. Analysts give him a certificate stating it could be a state secret, and he chooses his promotion outfit.”
Unfortunately for Ivan Safronov, he fit the bill — and it might earn him a 24-year prison sentence. On the other hand, Ivan Pavlov said, the length of the sentence the court announces at Safronov’s trial on September 5 might not ultimately matter: “What Safronov and his lawyers should focus on now is how much time the junta that took over [Russia] and unleashed a war in the center of Europe has left in power. That, and not a second longer, is Ivan Safronov’s real sentence.”
English-language version by Sam Breazeale