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Wednesday 12 June 2019

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Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has formally dedicated a new bureau in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, as part of the broadcaster's relaunch of its Bulgarian Service.

The event, held on June 12, marks the official return of the Bulgarian Service, which started digital operations in January.

RFE/RL operated a Bulgarian Service for years during and after the Cold War until shuttering it in 2004.

"When we left Bulgaria in 2004, the dominant opinion was that communism had collapsed, the West had won, freedom would inevitably come, and media freedom as well," Nenad Pejic, RFE/RL's vice president and editor in chief, said at a ceremony marking the bureau's opening.

"As we see today, this is not the case in many countries. Media freedom is a process and it takes a long time to be established," he said. "We hope we can help going through that bumpy road."

Since beginning operations, RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service has broken major stories, such as uncovering a massive real-estate scandal involving ruling party members. The reports have roiled Bulgarian politics and led to the resignation of a powerful lawmaker.

They've also elicited the ire of one far-right political party, which accused RFE/RL of "working to destroy the Bulgarian state."

In addition to the relaunch of the Bulgarian Service, RFE/RL restarted its Romanian Service earlier this year.

Both countries, which joined the European Union in 2007, have been plagued by rampant corruption.

In announcing the relaunch of the Bulgarian Service last year, RFE/RL's then-president, Thomas Kent, said he hoped the move would help encourage the growth of a free press and promote democratic values.

Funded mainly by a grant from the U.S. Congress, RFE/RL is a private, nonprofit organization that reports in 26 languages in 22 countries across Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and South Asia.

Critics say planting drugs on activists and independent journalists remains a tool in Putin's Russia. (illustrative photo)

The narcotics case against Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov has been dismissed and police have admitted that no evidence against him exists.

But that outcome was a rare exception among cases filed under the notorious Article 228 of Russia's Criminal Code, which outlaws "the making, acquisition, storage, transportation, sending, or sale of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances." Each year, more than 100,000 people are convicted under this article, which activists say has become one of the authorities' preferred weapons in an ongoing war against political opponents, civil-society activists, and inconvenient journalists.

Many of these cases feature procedural violations or other strong indications that the narcotics were planted. But this rarely stops Russian judges from convicting defendants and giving them serious prison terms.

Here are a few of the highest-profile Article 228 cases from recent years:

Martin Kochesoko

Martin Kochesoko
Martin Kochesoko

Kochesoko is the leader of the Khabze nongovernmental organization in the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. On June 8, he was arrested on suspicion of acquiring and possessing narcotics.

According to local media, Kochesoko and a friend were stopped by police while traveling on a fishing trip. Police searched their car and purportedly discovered narcotics. Kochesoko's friend was released but Kochesoko was taken to a remand jail in Nalchik. His colleagues believe the authorities are applying pressure to him while holding him in isolation in a bid to get him to confess.

Kochesoko has criticized Russia's laws on the teaching of native languages and has participated in the Democratic Congress of Peoples of Russia. More than 2,000 people have signed a petition calling on the republican prosecutor to release Kochesoko.

Oyub Titiyev

Oyub Titiyev
Oyub Titiyev

Titiyev is the director of the Memorial human rights center office in Grozny, Chechnya. Memorial is one of the only independent human rights organizations still working in Chechnya, which is under the authoritarian control of republic head Ramzan Kadyrov. Virtually all the others have been forced to shut down.

In January 2018, police stopped and searched Titiyev's car when he was driving to work. They claimed to find a packet of marijuana under the front passenger seat. Defense lawyers have documented numerous irregularities in the handling of Titiyev's case. Authorities have denied attorneys the opportunity to review surveillance videos of Titiyev's arrest and interrogations. Police say that none of the surveillance cameras in the area where Titiyev was stopped was working at the time.

Titiyev maintains his innocence and says police planted the drugs. Investigators did not look into his allegations.

In March 2019, the 61-year-old was convicted and sentenced to four years of forced labor after spending 16 months in pretrial detention. On June 10, authorities announced Titiyev would be granted early release after serving three months of his sentence, which, together with the time he served in pretrial detention, amounts to one-third of his sentence.

He is expected to be released sometime around June 20.

Nikolai Yarst

Nikolai Yarst
Nikolai Yarst

Nikolai Yars is a journalist with Russia Public Television based in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi. In 2013, police claimed to have found drugs in his car just as he was working on exposing "a large corrupt network trafficking children in Sochi." According to his investigation, the network involved the mayor, judges, and local police officials.

He and members of his crew were en route to an interview with members of the local branch of the Investigative Committee when they were stopped and their car was searched. Police claimed to have found 2.94 grams of drugs in the car. Later, investigators claimed they found 0.01 grams of the same drug in Yarst's back pocket. They claimed the tiny amount of the drug was destroyed during the testing.

Yarst spent 10 months under house arrest pending trial when his case was suddenly dropped. He is convinced the case was closed because of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, during which the Russian authorities sought to avoid scandals.

After his release, Yarst went to Moscow, where a human rights lawyer informed him that the case had been reopened. Yarst decided to seek political asylum in the United States in 2015.

Sergei Reznikov

Sergei Reznikov
Sergei Reznikov

Reznikov was a Communist Party member of the regional election commission of the Vernadsky Prospekt area of Moscow and an active campaigner against election falsification. In 2011, he exposed illegal "carousel voting" and, thanks partly to his efforts, the Constitutional Court made significant changes to the electoral law in 2013.

Reznikov was detained in 2017 as he left a store accompanied by his granddaughter. Police claimed they found 8.06 grams of cocaine in his possession. Police also accused him of stealing license plates from cars and extorting money from drivers to get them back. They claimed that he left a phone number on the victims' cars, but defense lawyers found that the phone was registered only days before Reznikov's arrest. When the telephone went missing, police dropped that charge and only pursued the narcotics investigation.

Later in 2017, Reznikov was sentenced to three years in prison. He was released in November after a court ruled he could pay a 350,000 ruble ($5,400) fine in lieu of serving the remainder of his term.

Taisia Osipova

Taisia Osipova
Taisia Osipova

Osipova is an activist with the Other Russia movement in the city of Smolensk. Her husband, Sergei Fomchenkov, is also an Other Russia activist. Earlier, Osipova worked with Eduard Limonov's radical opposition National Bolshevik Party.

In 2010, police claimed they found heroin during a search of her home. Much of the case against Osipova relied on the testimony of an anonymous witness who claimed to have purchased drugs from her. Authorities say the witness is in Russia's witness-protection program and the defense was not allowed to question her.

The raid on Osipova's home came just as her husband was preparing documents necessary to register Other Russia as a political party with the Justice Ministry. A senior official with the Anti-Terrorism Center participated in the raid. The Memorial human rights center has claimed that while in custody, Osipova was pressured to make false statements against her husband.

In 2012, she was sentenced to eight years in prison for drug dealing. In 2017, she was released on parole after serving more than six years in prison.

Zhalaudi Geriyev

Zhalaudi Geriyev
Zhalaudi Geriyev

Geriyev is a journalist with the website Caucasus Knot based in Chechnya. In 2016, he was abducted by Chechen security agents while on his way to the airport. Armed men pulled him off a public bus and forced him into an unmarked car. He says he was taken to a forest and tortured by men who accused him of working against the Chechen authorities. During the ordeal, his backpack was taken from him. Later, police claimed to have found marijuana in it.

Geriyev says he was compelled to sign a form admitting the he grew marijuana at home and sold it. His colleagues assert the case against him was fabricated as revenge for his journalistic work. The Memorial human rights group listed him as a political prisoner.

He was sentenced to three years in prison and was released in April.

Mikhail Savostin

Mikhail Savostin
Mikhail Savostin

Savostin is an opposition activist from Mineralnye Vody and a leader of the Assembly of Peoples of the Caucasus. He campaigned actively against a government plan to implement a road tax on cargo trucks, and in 2012 he carried out a hunger strike calling for the resignation of President Vladimir Putin.

In April 2018, he planned to drive to Vilnius, Lithuania, to attend a Free Russia Foundation forum. Police stopped him not far from his home and claimed to have found 11.69 grams of marijuana in his jeans pocket. A larger package of marijuana was purportedly found in his car.

Savostin claims he was abducted from a bus while leaving Mineralnye Vody by armed men in masks. He was pulled from the bus, his hands were bound, and something was put in his pocket, he said.

He has been in pretrial custody since that time.

Ruslan Kutayev

Ruslan Kutayev
Ruslan Kutayev

Kutayev was arrested for possession of 3 grams of heroin shortly after he gave a presentation critical of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov at a conference in 2014. Kutayev criticized Kadyrov for moving the republic's Day of Memory and Mourning, which commemorates the brutal 1944 deportation of the Chechen people, from February 23 to May 10, the day that Kadyrov's father was assassinated. Kutayev noted that since the commemoration was moved, no public ceremonies or other activities were held.

Kutayev says he was abducted in Grozny a couple of days after the conference. His abductors put a bag over his head, beat him, and tortured him with electric shocks. He does not know who abducted him or where he was taken.

Kutayev testified in court that he was innocent and that the Chechen authorities were punishing him for his human rights and political activities. He was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. He was released in 2017.

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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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