MOSCOW -- The U.S. ambassador to Russia has criticized what he calls the Russian government’s lack of action to protect journalists who have received threats of retaliation from Russian officials or face criminal charges considered trumped up by their supporters.
In an online briefing on April 22, Ambassador John J. Sullivan slammed extremism charges launched against Svetlana Prokopyeva, an RFE/RL contributor in Pskov, and threats issued by Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov against the broadcaster’s North Caucasus bureau chief, Aslan Doukaev, for an article challenging the Chechen authorities’ policies.
He also denounced Kadyrov’s threats against Elena Milashina, a journalist working for Novaya Gazeta who has written extensively and critically about the human rights situation in Chechnya.
“Both myself and our embassy team are following these cases very closely. Freedom of the press is the pillar of any democracy,” said Sullivan, a former deputy secretary of state who took up his post in Moscow in January.
“Unfortunately freedom of the press is under pressure today in Russia,” he added.
The cases of the three journalists has highlighted issues around independent coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic and its spread within Russia and its constituent republics, first and foremost the Republic of Chechnya.
An article by Milashina was taken down last week following a request by Russia's media regulator, Roskomnadzor. The move came after Kadyrov labeled as "absurd" the article about measures introduced to tackle the coronavirus in Chechnya, and threatened to harm Milashina.
Germany and France echoed the United States’ concern over reported death threats against Milishina, who won the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law in 2017 for her “important and courageous work.”
“Threats made by state officials are entirely unacceptable and contravene all forms of the rule of law,” French Human Rights Ambassador Francois Croquette and German Commissioner for Human Rights Policy Barbel Kofler said in a joint statement.
Sullivan cited a “disturbing trend“ in Russia's media environment, singling out the charges against Prokopyeva as “egregious” and arguing that she “deserves the dignity and respect that a member of the press serving in difficult circumstances has earned.”
Prokopyeva is awaiting trial on extremism charges for remarks she made about a November 2018 bomb attack on the offices of Russia’s Federal Security Services in Arkhangelsk.
Last month, RFE/RL President Jamie Fly called Prokopyeva's indictment "a cynical effort to silence an independent journalist."
“We’ve raised these issues with the Russian government and unfortunately, to date, Russian federal authorities have taken no action to address them,” Sullivan said.
“So it’s appropriate for us to continue to do so, and we will,” he added.
U.S. Citizen Accused Of Espionage
Sullivan also commented on the ongoing trial against Paul Whelan, a U.S. citizen accused by Russia of espionage. The ambassador said he was denied entry to a closed-door hearing on Whelan’s case held on April 20, despite being able in the past to engage the judge overseeing the case and speak with Whelan himself on at least one previous occasion.
Whelan, a former U.S. marine who also holds Canadian, Irish, and British citizenships, was charged with spying after security agents arrested him in a December 2018 sting operation, claiming that a flash drive they seized contained state secrets.
He denies the charges calling them political in nature and has alleged being mistreated by guards.
“He is foremost in my thoughts every day as I continue my services as ambassador,” Sullivan said of Whelan, who faces up to 20 years in prison.
“Along with other Americans who have been detained,” he added.
Addressing the business climate for American citizens in Russia, Sullivan cited the case of U.S. investor Michael Calvey, who was detained in Moscow last February along with several other executives and employees of his Russia-based private-equity group, Baring Vostok, on charges of financial fraud.
Sullivan said he will continue to engage the U.S. business community, but cases like Calvey's will have to be resolved before bilateral trade can significantly increase.
“It’s become clear to me in my engagement with U.S. businesses active here in Russia that it’s going to be difficult to continue that type of dialogue as long as someone as prominent in the U.S. business community as Michael Calvey remains under house arrest in Russia,” Sullivan said.
“The criminalization of business disputes casts a serious pall over the investment and business climate in Russia,” he added.
With the coronavirus pandemic only deepening in both countries, Sullivan estimated that several hundred American citizens currently in Russia are being assisted in their efforts to return to the United States. But a dearth of commercial flights in Russia makes it difficult for Americans outside Moscow to reach the Russian capital at short notice ahead of outbound flights from Sheremetyevo Airport.
Commenting on aid packages supplied by Russia to the U.S., and U.S. President Donald Trump’s suggestion that the United States could reciprocate with its own shipment to Russia, Sullivan said plans are ongoing for further medical assistance between the two countries.
“Both countries have provided assistance to each other in times of crisis, and are committed to doing so again in the future,” he said.