A Russian court has sentenced a journalist from a respected business daily to 3 1/2 years in prison after convicting him on extremism charges in a case denounced by rights activists and scores of fellow journalists.
A Moscow court on August 10 found Aleksandr Sokolov, a special correspondent with the RBK newspaper, and three others guilty of involvement with a nationalist group deemed “extremist” by Russian authorities.
Investigators accused Sokolov -- together with co-defendants Yury Mukhin, Kirill Barabash, and Valery Parfyonov -- of continuing the work of a hard-line nationalist group called the People’s Will Army after it was banned by authorities as an extremist organization in 2010.
Barabash and Parvyonov were each handed four-year prison sentences, while Mukhin, a nationalist media figure and activist fiercely critical of the Kremlin, was given a four-year suspended sentence.
Sokolov, who has been in custody since his arrest in July 2015, has found supporters across Russia’s political spectrum, including from liberal journalists and political activists, nationalist groups, and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny.
He says he suspects his prosecution was linked to his doctoral dissertation on mismanagement in state corporations and to his investigative reporting for RBK, including on cost overruns involved in the construction of Russia’s Vostochny Cosmodrome, a space launch facility.
Sokolov was arrested just weeks after the July 2015 report about the Vostochny Cosmodrome, though he says his apartment was raided by investigators in February 2014 -- around the time he was preparing to defend his dissertation.
Prosecutors said the defendants were part of a cosmetically rebranded version of the People’s Will Army known as For Responsible Authorities!
Sokolov was accused of registering and running the website for the group, which has called for a referendum on setting up a popular tribunal to try senior Russian officials.
Sokolov says the calls for a referendum are constitutionally protected and that prosecutors presented no evidence showing that the group is linked to extremist activities.
The Russian human rights group Memorial has called Sokolov, Mukhin, and Parfyonov political prisoners.
Nearly 300 Russian journalists last month signed an open letter of support for Sokolov, and the Kremlin’s own human rights ombudswoman last year asked prosecutors to conduct a probe of the “legality and basis of the measures taken against” the journalist.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly addressed Sokolov’s prosecution as well.
Asked by an RBK editor about possible political motivations in Sokolov’s prosecution, Putin told a December 2015 press conference that “if he is in jail for some kind of exposes about [the] Vostochny [Cosmodrome], and the case is only about that, I will, of course, help your publication.”
Navalny, who testified on the defense’s behalf in court , called the August 10 convictions “yet another monstrous, unjust verdict."
“I was called in as a witness in this trial. All of the defendants are completely innocent people,” Navalny wrote on Twitter.
He had accused authorities of prosecuting the defendants "because they want to hold a referendum.”
Sokolov told reporters in the courtroom following the verdict that he and his co-defendants would challenge the conviction, the Interfax news agency reported.
Ruslan Dzarasov, currently a senior professor at the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics in Moscow, told RFE/RL that investigators had questioned him about Sokolov weeks after the journalist’s apartment was raided in early 2014.
Dzarasov, who served as Sokolov’s academic adviser, said an investigator asked him about how and why the doctoral student chose to write about the management of state corporations for his dissertation.
“I explained that Sokolov is publicly active, that he stands for developing civil society and for the strict and effective use of state funds. And that in order to achieve this, he feels there needs to be more financial transparency among those entities that use government funds,” Dzarasov told RFE/RL
Dzarasov described Sokolov as a “Marxist” and a proponent of a “planned economy” who is “very upset by corruption” in Russia.
The Sova Center, a Moscow-based group that monitors the use and abuse of extremism legislation, has described the ideology of the two groups at the center of the case against Sokolov as “national-Stalinist.”
Sova head Aleksandr Verkhovsky told RFE/RL that activists with the groups have engaged in inflammatory language -- including public calls encouraging violence against police -- that could be considered extremist in nature.
But Verkhovsky said the original basis for banning the People’s Will Army -- the calls for a referendum on people’s tribunals for officials -- was not sufficient to earn an “extremist” designation.
“While the idea is completely crazy, the law doesn’t bar someone from proposing changes to the constitution, even the most idiotic ones,” Verkhovsky told RFE/RL.
The verdict stated that Sokolov and his fellow defendants used the referendum idea as an “attractive pretext” to organize a group whose true goals were the “mass production and dissemination of materials,” Russian news agencies reported.
Sokolov last year filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights alleging that Russia had violated his right to liberty, security, and freedom of expression, RBK reported at the time.
With reporting by RFE/RL’s Russian Service, RBK, AFP, Interfax, TASS, and Meduza