RIGA, Latvia — A Russian court sentenced former investigative journalist Ivan Safronov to 22 years in prison on charges of treason, a grim resolution of one of the most high-profile prosecutions of a journalist in Russia in years.
The harsh sentence is only the latest episode in Russia’s crackdown on media and free expression that has shuttered nearly all independent media outlets in the country and imposes severe regulations on reporting the ongoing conflict in neighboring Ukraine.
Safronov was arrested in July 2020 and has been held in pretrial detention ever since. Investigators with the FSB, Russia’s domestic intelligence service, accused him of passing on state secrets to German and Czech agents between 2015 and 2017, during his tenure as a reporter covering military and space for business daily Kommersant. The trial was held behind closed doors and the evidence was not made public.
Safronov’s supporters say the FSB drummed up the charges in retaliation for his journalistic work that focused on secretive Russian arms trade dealings and disclosed the mishaps of the country’s Defense Ministry.
In a clip from the courtroom, published by the TV Rain channel, Safronov’s supporters clapped and chanted “Freedom!” after the verdict was handed down. “I love you,” Safronov replied before he was led out of the courtroom cage.
A leaked indictment, published by the Russian investigative outlet Proekt, suggests that the materials Safronov allegedly obtained from “people with access to state secrets” and passed on to Western intelligence were in the public domain.
According to Proekt, Safronov agreed to contribute to a publication that employed his friend, Czech national Martin Larysh, and later wrote for political analyst Dmitry Voronin, who worked for a German-Swiss consulting company. The analytical pieces Safronov sent to Larysh and Voronin, whom the FSB accuses of being Czech and German agents, respectively, were the basis for the indictment against him.
Proekt says the information contained in Safronov’s pieces was already available in Kommersant, a number of Russian and international outlets, state news agency RIA Novosti, and on the Russian Defense Ministry website.
The report also notes that during the pretrial investigation, Safronov unsuccessfully requested that prosecutors allow him to access a computer so he could pull up the purportedly classified information from online sources.
“It is clear to us that the reason for Ivan Safronov’s persecution is not ‘treason,’ that is not supported by anything, but it is his journalistic work and articles he published without taking into account the opinion of the Ministry of Defense and the Russian authorities,” Russian investigative outlet Kholod said in a letter calling on Russian authorities to release the journalist.
The prosecution initially requested 24 years in prison, just one year short of the maximum punishment. Safronov’s lawyer, Yevgeny Smirnov, said last week that moments before announcing their sentencing request, the prosecutor turned to the journalist and offered him a deal: If he pleaded guilty, the term would be slashed in half. Safronov refused.
Safronov’s career at Kommersant spanned a decade. He first joined the paper as an intern but quickly rose through the ranks and became one of the most high-profile Russian correspondents covering the defense and space industries. His father, also named Ivan, worked for the same paper covering military affairs and died under mysterious circumstances after falling from a window of his Moscow apartment building.
Friends and family of Safronov told Proekt that he regularly received job offers from ministries and state companies — often the same ones he covered — but turned them down to stick to journalism.
In 2019, Safronov left Kommersant after a scoop about the upcoming resignation of Russia’s parliament speaker, an apparent leak that angered officials, who pressured the paper to fire the reporter. Safronov then worked as an adviser to the head of the Russian state space corporation, Roscosmos, for a few months before his arrest.
State treason cases are rare in Russia, but they are increasingly seen as a way for the security services to pressure journalists, scientists and other individuals researching sensitive government matters. The trials are always held behind closed doors and the reasons for the prosecutions are rarely made public.
Ivan Pavlov, who was representing Safronov until Russian authorities charged him with disclosing details from a preliminary investigation and forced him to flee the country, once specialized in defending espionage and treason cases.
In a 2018 report, he wrote: “There are more and more ‘spy’ cases in Russia each year, but very little is known about them, and when information does come out, it raises significant doubts.”
“[Charges] intended for punishing foreign intelligence officers are applied to housewives, saleswomen, scientists and pensioners,” Pavlov said at the time. “Such cases are investigated and considered under a veil of secrecy, which makes it easy for law enforcement officers to violate the rights of the accused and generally invent cases out of the blue, for show. We tried to lift that veil.”
Another of Safronov’s lawyers, Dmitry Talantov, who took over from Pavlov, was detained on charges under Russia’s “fake news laws” and is facing up to 10 years in prison.
In another grim milestone for Russian media, one of the last independent Russian news outlets, Novaya Gazeta, was officially stripped of its media license on Monday, making it impossible for the newspaper to legally operate inside the country.
Novaya Gazeta, a key investigative outlet established in 1993 and edited by Nobel laureate Dmitry Muratov, ceased operations in March, soon after the start of the war in Ukraine, after getting warnings from Russia’s tech and communications regulator.
Part of its staff left Russia to launch a new publication, Novaya Gazeta Europe, but the regulator has also banned its website in Russia.