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Sergei Koltyrin

A Russian historian who was jailed on disputed pedophilia charges last year has died in a prison hospital after an appeal from prosecutors delayed his release on health grounds.

MOSCOW -- A Russian historian who was jailed on disputed pedophilia charges last year has died in a prison hospital after an appeal from prosecutors delayed his release on health grounds.

Sergei Koltyrin, 67, passed away overnight into April 2 after a long battle with cancer that predated his arrest in October 2018 and continued throughout his confinement at a prison in Medvezhegorsk, a town in Russia’s northern Karelia region where Koltyrin had worked as the local museum director.

Vladimir Koltyrin, his brother, told RFE/RL that a funeral was planned for April 6, but the body may be taken directly for burial since the region -- like others across Russia -- is in lockdown in connection with the coronavirus outbreak.

“They don’t allow us to assemble in the street,” he said in a telephone interview. “We’re thinking about what we can do.”

On March 6, a court in Medvezhegorsk ordered Koltyrin’s release on humanitarian grounds, noting a deterioration in his health and arguing that he should be allowed to see relatives before he dies. But prosecutors filed an appeal against the judge’s decision and Koltyrin died before that appeal could be overturned.

Vladimir Koltyrin would visit him once every two months, and saw him most recently just over a month before his death. He told RFE/RL that Koltyrin appeared upbeat and was looking forward to leaving prison, and asked Vladimir to pick him up on his release day. But conditions in custody may have accelerated his physical decline.

“When a person is used to living in freedom, it’s hard to get accustomed to such conditions,” he said.

Sergei Koltyrin was arrested in October 2018 and sentenced the following May to 9 years in prison on charges of sexually abusing an underage boy, which he pled guilty to after initially denying. Another man, Evgeny Nosov, was given 11 years for allegedly acting as Koltyrin’s accomplice.

The case drew national attention because Koltyrin had been a vocal critic of plans by authorities to exhume Sandarmokh, a Stalin-era execution site in Karelia that is believed to holds the bodies of several thousand inmates of forced labor camps who were murdered there in the 1930s. Koltyrin’s supporters alleged that he had been pressured to confess.

Tamara Polyakova, a Karelia-based historian who regularly exchanged letters with Koltyrin during his time in custody, told RFE/RL that he did not complain of bad treatment by prison guards.

“My impression was that he was mostly depressed for other reasons, and was okay with the prison conditions,” she said. “Of course he might have not mentioned bad treatment even if it did occur.”

“But he was expecting to get out alive,” she added.

Anatoly Razumov, a friend of Koltyrin’s, said the prisoner had undergone an operation in January and may have suffered complications from it. In a letter he received in mid-March, Razumov said Koltyrin struck a depressing tone.

“I think he was essentially saying goodbye,” Razumov wrote in a text message.

Yury Dmitriyev, another local gulag researcher who helped discover Sandarmokh in 1997, was arrested in 2016 on pedophilia charges similar to those for which Koltyrin was convicted. His trial has been continuing since 2016, and Dmitriyev has continued to publicize Sandarmokh from custody by contributing to publications about its history.

On March 23, after Dmitriyev had spent 3 years behind bars, a court in the regional capital, Petrozavodsk, extended his pretrial detention for another three months, despite reports earlier this year that judges were preparing to issue a verdict in his case by late February.

Several thousand people have signed a petition calling for the 64-year-old Dmitriyev to be placed under house arrest for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, arguing that his age, his smoking habit, and an immune system weakened by years in custody leave him particularly vulnerable if he contracts the pathogen.

“The very peak of the growing coronavirus pandemic will find him in a prison cell,” the petition reads. “[Dmitriyev] does not represent any threat to society, and in current conditions his health is in serious danger."

Ana Lalic was detained at her home.

Serbian police detained a journalist who wrote a critical text on the handling of the coronavirus epidemic and released her on April 2 after interrogating her overnight.

BELGRADE -- Serbian police detained a journalist who wrote a critical text on the handling of the coronavirus epidemic and released her on April 2 after interrogating her overnight.

The Nova.rs news site journalist Ana Lalic was detained at her home late on April 1, hours after she published an article that said medical staff at a hospital in the northern city of Novi Sad was lacking adequate protective gear.

The article, which quoted unnamed medical staff, also said that several nurses may have become infected and that the clinic lacked medication.

The hospital issued a denial and reported Lalic to police.

Lalic said "there are witnesses for everything I wrote" and that neither the hospital, nor the regional health authority responded to her questions before the publication of the article.

Her lawyer, Srdjan Kovacevic, said she was accused of disseminating false information and causing panic.

Her laptop and mobile phones were seized and were not returned upon her release, Kovacevic told RFE/RL.

It was not immediately clear whether she will be charged.

The OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Harlem Desir, said he was “alarmed” that Lalic was detained over her reporting.

“Despite being released today, it is very problematic that police seized her laptop and mobile phones. Journalists need to be able to do their job freely,” Desir tweeted.

Serbia has 1,060 confirmed coronavirus cases, with 28 fatalities, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

On April 2, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said the government would repeal a March 28 decree which allowed information related to the coronavirus outbreak to be published only if it comes from the national crisis-management task force.

The task force announces developments and plans during daily news conferences, while Brnabic and President Aleksandar Vucic make the important announcements such as extending lockdown measures.

Brnabic said the decree intended to "protect citizens from unverified information," but acknowledged that it may "cast doubts on what we are trying to accomplish."

Upon hearing the news, Lalic said, "If the decree was indeed repealed, it was worth the night in custody."

Vucic announced an open-ended state of emergency on March 15 and parliament has been sidelined.

Vucic has assumed full power, prompting an outcry from opponents who say he has seized control of the state in an unconstitutional manner.

With reporting by nova.rs and dpa

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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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