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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Margarita Simonyan, the chief editor of RT: "We won’t let you change him."

There was plenty of Champagne and wine flowing in Moscow in the hours after Russia’s polls closed on March 18, as supporters of Vladimir Putin celebrated his reelection to another six-year term as president.

Among those unabashedly singing Putin’s praises was the chief editor of one of Russia’s most prominent news organizations: RT.

In a series of posts to Twitter late on March 18 and early on March 19, Margarita Simonyan, who has headed the state-funded TV channel formerly known as Russia Today since its beginning, made little effort to maintain any sort of journalistic distance from politics.

One post featured a screenshot from state TV, showing Putin speaking to supporters, along with Simonyan.

“Here we are congratulating Putin. And he us,” she wrote.​

Another, posted around the same time, shows Simonyan and Putin’s election campaign spokesman, Andrei Kondrashov, raising glasses of prosecco and wine in celebration of Putin’s victory.

Later posts focused on her interpretation that the results -- which showed Putin winning 76.7 percent of the vote -- showed that Putin was no longer merely Russia’s president but the country’s leader, or chief, she said, using a Russian word often associated with Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

“Earlier he was simply our president and it was possible to replace him,” she wrote in one post, directed at the West. “And now he is our leader. We won’t let you change him. You have done this with your own hands.”

When she wasn’t praising Putin, Simonyan was burying the West.

She lit into Western leaders, Western reporters, and backers of more financial sanctions against Russia. She castigated supporters of banning Russian athletes from international competitions due to the state-orchestrated doping campaign uncovered during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

She railed against Western liberal ideals, asserting that Russian voters had rejected them and instead had rallied to something she called “conservative-patriotic, communist and nationalist ideas.”

“We don't want to live like you anymore. For 50 years, secretly and clearly, we wanted to live like you, and we no longer want this. We don't respect you anymore. And everyone you support,” wrote Simonyan, who studied in the United States as a high-school student on a U.S.-government-funded exchange program.

Simonyan has long been known for sharp-tongued barbs directed at the Western media, Kremlin critics, and Putin’s opponents.

The brainchild of Putin’s first press minister, Mikhail Lesin, RT has grown from an upstart, offbeat broadcaster into a sizable TV operation, with programming and publishing in English and five other languages and a $316 million budget from the Russian government, according to its latest figures.

Last year, the outlet’s U.S. division was forced by the U.S. Justice Department to register under a decades-old law known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

At the time, the division stated that its parent corporation, known as ANO TV-Novosti, is ”financed by a foreign government, foreign political party, or other foreign principal.”

"I don’t trust the police, the courts, no one. I’ve been in Ukraine for six months without any documents, completely helpless," says Fikrat Huseynli.

Fikret Huseynli, a journalist who fled his homeland of Azerbaijan over a decade ago, says he got word early on March 5 that suspicious-looking men were trying to track him down in Kyiv.

Later that day, Huseynli told RFE/RL in a recent interview, four men whom he suspects were linked to the Azerbaijani security services turned up at the door of his rented apartment in the Ukrainian capital.

Claiming to be police and speaking both Ukrainian and Azeri, they told him they’d been sent to detain him and that he’d be extradited "within 48 hours" back to Azerbaijan, where Huseynli faces what he and supporters call trumped-up charges linked to his past reporting, much of it focusing on corruption at the highest echelons of power in the energy-rich Caucasus country.

"They tried to break down the door. They punched me, and I lost three teeth. With the help of others, I managed to close the door, and I escaped through the balcony," Huseynli told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service in Kyiv on March 14.

Huseynli, a correspondent for the independent Azerbaijani online television channel Turan, has been stuck in the Ukrainian capital since October, when authorities stopped him from boarding a flight to Germany, seizing his documents under an Interpol red notice requested by Baku. He remains in legal limbo as Ukraine decides what to do with him.

International media watchdogs have urged Kyiv not to aid Baku in its efforts to track down critics beyond its borders, and to return Huseynli's passport and other documents to him so he can return to the Netherlands, where he currently resides.

Ukrainian officials have been conspicuous in their silence, releasing few if any statements on Huseynli’s plight.

Taking Repression Global: What's Interpol Exactly, And How Do Some Governments Abuse It?
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It's not the first such case in Ukraine. An Uzbek journalist was detained at an airport in Kyiv in September on the basis of an Interpol red notice, an alert sent out to police worldwide notifying them about an arrest request from one of Interpol's 192 member countries. Critics charge is often abused by repressive governments in order to pursue dissidents after they have fled abroad.

'Lost Faith' In Ukrainian System

Huseynli says that after the attack he headed for the the embassy of the Netherlands, the country that first granted him asylum, then citizenship, after he went into self-exile in 2008.

Along with human rights campaigners in Ukraine, staff at the embassy urged Huseynli to report what had happened with the police, advice he did not take.

"I don’t trust the police, the courts, no one. I’ve been in Ukraine for six months without any documents, completely helpless," explains Huseynli.

Fikret Huseynli was stabbed, beaten, and left for dead by unknown assailants in Baku in 2006.
Fikret Huseynli was stabbed, beaten, and left for dead by unknown assailants in Baku in 2006.

Huseynli, describing himself as a "political hostage," claims suspected security-service agents have been shadowing him in the Ukrainian capital.

"I continue to be watched. Some of them are Slavic looking, some are similar to Azeris. And these aren’t street thugs. I think they work for security services; maybe Azerbaijan’s, maybe Ukraine’s or Russia’s," says Huseynli.

Huseynli has said elsewhere that on the day of the alleged attack, unidentified men approached him with an offer: report positively on the Azerbaijani government and negatively on the opposition. Do this, they allegedly said, and the extradition request is dropped. If you don’t, they warned, unclear repercussions would follow.

International press watchdogs have highlighted Huseynli's predicament.

"We call on Ukrainian authorities to immediately return travel documents to Fikret Huseynli and allow him to leave Ukraine," said CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova. "Kyiv must not be complicit with Azerbaijan authorities' persecution of critics beyond its borders. We also call on Ukrainian police to investigate the March 5 physical attack on Huseynli, and bring the perpetrators to justice."

Ukraine's prosecutor-general did not respond to questions about the case from RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

Looking To Set Up A Bureau

Huseynli, the current head of the Amsterdam bureau of Turan, a Baku-based news agency that offers reporting in Azeri, Russia, and English on its website portal, arrived in Kyiv on October 7, 2017, to check out possibly opening a bureau in the Ukrainian capital.

Huseynli was about to board a flight to Dusseldorf at Boryspil International Airport on October 14 when he was arrested under a red notice issued by Interpol at the Azerbaijani government’s request. It accused him of "crossing a border illegally" and "fraud."

Following his arrest, a Kyiv court ordered him held for 18 days pending examination of his appeal.

A Kyiv court on October 27 ordered the journalist's release on bail but ruled that Huseynli should remain in Ukraine for two months while the Prosecutor-General's Office investigated Azerbaijan's extradition request, according to reports.

Ukrainian courts have twice extended the investigation term; the new deadline is March 20, 2018, according to the journalist.

"If I am killed or kidnapped or extradited to Azerbaijan in the near future, all responsibility lies with the Ukrainian authorities. What awaits me in Azerbaijan is a long prison term or death," Huseynli wrote on his Facebook page on March 13.

Huseynli, who formerly worked for Azerbaijan’s opposition Azadliq newspaper, fled to the Netherlands after he was stabbed, beaten, and left for dead by unknown assailants in Baku in 2006.

His fears of being abducted appear well-grounded.

In May 2017, his colleague, the independent Azerbaijani investigative journalist Afgan Mukhtarli, disappeared in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he lived in exile, and reemerged two days later at a detention center in Azerbaijan.

On September 20, Ukraine detained Uzbek journalist Narzullo Akhunzhovov when he arrived in Kyiv from Turkey on September 20, also on the basis of an Interpol red notice.

The number of Interpol red notices has skyrocketed in the past decade -- from 2,804 in 2006 to 12,878 in 2016, according to Reporters Without Borders. The watchdog and other NGOs charge that the alert has been abused by repressive governments to hunt down dissidents abroad.

Huseynli says he feels betrayed by Ukraine, whose "territorial integrity" he's always backed amid the country's conflict with Russia, which seized Crimea in 2014 and has backed separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine.

"But now the Ukrainian government is doing this to me," he says. "They just want to sell me out."

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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