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Svetlana Prokopyeva

MOSCOW -- Russian journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva has been formally charged with justifying terrorism in a case that has drawn criticism from rights and media watchdogs.

Prokopyeva, a freelance contributor for RFE/RL's Russian Service, said on March 16 she had been handed the indictment document at the prosecutor's office in Pskov.

She denies the charge, describing the criminal case against her as an attempt to "murder the freedom of speech" in Russia.

If found guilty, the journalist faces seven years in prison.

RFE/RL President Jamie Fly condemned Prokopyeva's indictment, saying that "the charges lack any merit, and have been brought instead in a cynical effort to silence an independent journalist."

"Independent journalists in Russia should be respected for their critical role in providing people with important news and information about issues they are facing, and not treated as criminals for doing their jobs," Fly added.

The charge against Prokopyeva stems from a November 2018 commentary she made for the Pskov affiliate of Ekho Moskvy in which she discussed a bombing that occurred the week before outside the offices of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in the far northern city of Arkhangelsk.

Russian media reported that the suspected bomber, a teenager who died in the incident, had posted statements on social media in which he accused the FSB of falsifying criminal cases.

In her commentary, Prokopyeva linked the teenager's statements to the political climate in Russia under President Vladimir Putin, suggesting that political activism in the country was severely restricted, leading people to despair.

In an open letter published by nearly a dozen independent Russian media outlets in October, Prokopyeva insisted that she "did not justify terrorism."

"I analyzed the reasons for a terrorist attack. I tried to understand why a young man, who should want to live, decided to commit this crime and suicide," Prokopyeva wrote.

"I consider this case to be just simple revenge on the part of the offended security agencies," she wrote. "In my article, I placed responsibility for the Arkhangelsk explosion on them. I wrote that a repressive state should expect such a reaction."

The case against Prokopyeva has been criticized by international media-freedom watchdogs such as Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the European Federation of Journalists.

A participant in an unsanctioned rally holds a poster reading: "I am against the usurpation of power by Vladimir Putin, for the constitution!' in front of the Constitutional Court building in St. Petersburg on March 15.

In the lead-up to the Russian Constitutional Court's approval of a raft of amendments to the basic law that could, among other things, allow President Vladimir Putin to run for two additional terms, hundreds of scholars, journalists, and legal experts warned that a "constitutional crisis and a pseudo-legal, unconstitutional coup" loomed over the country.

Just hours before the court on March 16 affirmed that Putin had a right to make the changes, more than 420 people had signed the open letter published by Ekho Moskvy.

The court's decision on the amendments -- which have already been approved by all regional legislatures, both houses of parliament, and Putin himself -- leaves only a nationwide vote in the way of them becoming law.

The letter makes three main arguments against the changes.

The first is that the amendment nullifying the terms of the current president, which effectively could allow Putin to start an entirely new presidential career, is "fundamentally unlawful, and politically and ethically unacceptable."

The letter further expresses deep concern regarding amendments to Chapters 3 and 8 of the constitution, which pertain to federal structure and local self-government, respectively.

The letter says the changes are not in keeping with Chapter 1, which lays out the fundamentals of Russia's constitutional system, and Chapter 2, which deals with individuals' rights. Neither of those two chapters are changed, creating a "situation of internal contradiction" and leading to the "paralysis and degradation of constitutional legal mechanisms."

Finally, the letter criticizes the "gross violation of the procedure for adopting constitutional amendments," saying that the avenue taken for the pending amendments "openly violates" federal law.

Ultimately, the letter concludes that the situation "undermines the evolutionary development of our country on the principles of democracy and freedoms and threatens to turn into a new tragedy of national discord."

The letter follows the publication of an online "manifesto" by Novaya gazeta in January decrying what it called a "coup" to "keep Vladimir Putin and his corrupt regime in power for life."

That initiative, which has been signed by more than 22,000 people, called on Russian citizens to vote against the amendments if they are put forward in a public ballot.

With the Constitutional Court's March 16 decision, the vote is expected to be held on April 22. The majority would determine whether the amendments will be accepted or not.

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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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