A Russian court has found journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva guilty of “justifying terrorism” in a controversial case widely criticized as an attack on freedom of speech.
The court in the western Russian city of Pskov announced its verdict on July 6 and ordered Prokopyeva to pay a fine of 500,000 rubles (about $6,950).
Prokopyeva’s supporters in the courtroom shouted "Shame" and "She is not guilty" as the judge read out the verdict.
Prokopyeva said she will appeal the decision. "I wasn’t counting on being found not guilty. We’ll appeal," Prokopyeva told reporters.
"The biggest success is that I was not forbidden from working in my profession," the journalist said.
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.
“Svetlana’s conviction means that there is no presumption of innocence, no protections for journalists against the brute force of the state,” said RFE/RL acting President Daisy Sindelar. “Her case recalls the show trials that were used by Soviet authorities to punish critics. It is a grim assault against free speech and the mission of an independent press.”
Prosecutors had asked the Second Western District Military Court to sentence 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.
Prosecutors had also sought to bar Prokopyeva from journalistic activities for four years. The charge carries a maximum sentence of up to seven years in prison.
"I am not afraid to criticize the government," Prokopyeva said in her final statement to the court on July 3. "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."
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.
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.
More than 30 independent Russian journalists have also issued statements in support of Prokopyeva.
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.