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Prosecutor Seeks Stiff Sentence For Russian Journalist For 'Justifying Terrorism'

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Svetlana Prokopyeva (right) attends a court hearing in Pskov on June 22.

PSKOV, Russia -- The prosecutor in the western Russian city of Pskov has asked a court to sentence journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva to six years in prison for "justifying terrorism" in a commentary she wrote that linked a suicide bombing with the country's political climate.

The prosecutor also asked the Second Western District Military Court on July 3 to bar Prokopyeva from journalistic activities for four years. The charge carries a maximum sentence of up to seven years in prison.

Prokopyeva, a freelance contributor to RFE/RL's Russian Service, has maintained her innocence throughout the trial and described the case as an attempt to "assassinate freedom of speech" in Russia.

"I am not afraid to criticize the government," Prokopyeva said in her final statement to the court. "I am not afraid to criticize law enforcement or tell the security organs that they are wrong. Because I know how really horrific it will become if I don’t speak out -- if no one speaks out."

She asked the court to take into consideration "the most basic principles that our society is built upon" when deciding her fate.

"I mean freedom of speech, the status of a journalist, and the mission of the press," she concluded. "I did my work. I did not do anything that was beyond the framework of my professional duty. And that is not a crime."

Later in the day, police detained picketers who had gathered outside the Moscow headquarters of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in support of Prokopyeva.

Journalist Ilya Azar wrote on the Telegram messaging service that he was in a police van with 15 others detained at the protest, most of them journalists.

Prokopyeva was charged in connection with a commentary she wrote in November 2018, published by the Pskov affiliate of Ekho Moskvy radio. In the text, she discussed a bombing outside the Federal Security Service (FSB) offices in the northern city of Arkhangelsk.

Russian media have reported that the suspected bomber, who died in the explosion, had posted statements on social media accusing the FSB of tampering with criminal cases.

'Yet Another Chilling Method'

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

"We are dismayed that Russia would choose to move so ruthlessly against a highly recognized independent journalist who was doing the opposite of what prosecutors allege," RFE/RL acting President Daisy Sindelar said in a statement on July 3.

"Svetlana’s commentary was an effort to explain a tragedy; the portrayal of her words as 'justifying terrorism' is a deliberate and politically motivated distortion aimed at silencing her critical voice, and recalls the worst show trials of one of Russia's darkest periods," she added.

In a July 3 statement, European Union spokesman Peter Stano called for the case against Prokopyeva to be dropped, saying it was an indication of "the ever-shrinking space for independent journalists and civil society" in Russia.

“We expect the Russian Federation to uphold its international and domestic obligations and to guarantee human rights and fundamental freedoms and ensure that journalists are able to work in a safe environment without fear of reprisal,” he said.

Human Rights Watch called Prokopyeva's prosecution a violation of freedom of expression, "but not just hers."

"It sends yet another chilling message that in Russia, raising uncomfortable questions can have severe repercussions -- a lesson the authorities have been giving the media for years," the New York-based rights group said.

The case has also drawn criticism from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and media-rights groups like Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and the European Federation of Journalists.

The Clooney Foundation for Justice a human rights watchdog founded by Hollywood star George Clooney and his wife, Lebanese-British lawyer Amal Clooney, said last month that it will be monitoring Prokopyeva's trial for its legality.

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