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The U.S. State Department and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have denounced a Russian court ruling that found Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty had violated a controversial "foreign-agents" law.

The July 6 statement by the media freedoms office of the Vienna-based OSCE came one day after a Moscow district court issued its ruling and fined RFE/RL 100,000 rubles ($1,600).

The court said RFE/RL failed to comply with a law regulating media outlets branded by the government as "foreign agents."

Lawyers for RFE/RL have defended the legally mandated filings made by the company, saying there was a lack of clarity as to when the reports were due.

“The court’s decision clearly shows that the 'foreign-agents' law unduly hinders the work of media outlets and narrows the space for freedom of the media in the Russian Federation,” Harlem Désir, the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, said in a statement.

The July 5 ruling came eight months after the Justice Ministry slapped the “foreign-agent” label on RFE/RL, Voice of America (VOA), and several affiliated news services.

The designation was based on a law signed by President Vladimir Putin in November allowing the government to apply the label to media outlets who receive funding from abroad. The law drew sharp criticism from Western governments and rights activists.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), an independent federal agency that supervises RFE/RL and VOA, on July 6 called the Moscow court decision "an attack on independent media."

The BBG said in a statement that the law to date has only been applied to U.S. government-funded outlets, whose independence it said is guaranteed by a legislative firewall, in what appears to be a "political attack" and "targeted campaign" against those "influential U.S. institutions."

"Neither RFE/RL nor anyone who works for them is an agent of the United States government," the BBG said, maintaining that the law is "discouraging the free exchange of ideas" while it "wrongfully stigmatizes our journalists and puts them at risk."

The court decision was "worrying and unacceptable, but it will not deter us from our mission to inform and engage people -- in Russia and around the world -- in support of freedom and democracy," the BBG said.

The U.S. State Department late on July 6 also said the Russian government appears to be "targeting" RFE/RL and VOA through its enforcement of the foreign-agent law and warned that the State Duma is moving to approve an expansion of the law that would enable the government to target individual journalists from those organizations as "foreign agents."

"This bill could provide the Russian government a new tool to target independent journalists and bloggers in retaliation for their work," department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

"The United States again calls on the Russian government to uphold its commitments...to respect the exercise of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression, in Russia," she said.

Boris Stomakhin as he appeared in a Moscow court in April 2014

Boris Stomakhin has spent more than a decade testing the limits of Russia's hate-speech laws -- and being punished for it. Twelve years after his writing first landed him in prison, he says life behind bars has taken its toll.

"The inability to relax for a single second; the constant anticipation of trouble or at the very least unpleasantness; and the frightening, oppressive internal tension triggered by this anticipation," Stomakhin, 43, told RFE/RL's Russian Service in written responses from prison in Russia's Saratov region.

"That, I suppose, is the worst, most difficult aspect of life in the prisons and penal colonies after all of these years," added Stomakhin, a left-wing publicist active on the margins of Russian political life for more than 20 years.

Stomakhin's incendiary antigovernment writings -- often bubbling over with radical, violent imagery -- have earned him prison sentences totaling 12 years. He is believed to have received the most severe punishment for hate-speech and incitement-to-extremism convictions in post-Soviet Russia.

All of my thinking aloud about this government never came to fruition and could not have inflicted the least bit of harm. It would have been smarter for them simply not to notice me."
-- Boris Stomakhin

But amid a widening hate-speech crackdown in recent years that critics say is being used to stymie political dissent, Stomakhin is a contentious candidate to be the poster boy for the right to free expression in Russia.

Rights groups have condemned the content of his writing, in which he has endorsed "bathing all of Russia in blood" and carrying out "at least one nuclear blast" in Russia as a means of resisting authorities.

Many nonetheless denounce his lengthy incarceration, noting his health problems, the small audience for his newsletters and blog posts, and their assessment that he is not a risk to society.

"There were no victims and no people who would have been inspired by these texts to commit violence," says the respected Russian rights group Memorial, which calls Stomkahin a "likely victim" of political repression but has not included him on its list of people it deems "political prisoners."

The European Court of Human Rights last month concluded that Russia violated Stomakhin's right to free expression, but also said that authorities in some instances justifiably intervened due to his statements that "glorified terrorism and advocated and promoted violence and hatred."

The court ordered Russia to pay Stomakhin 12,500 euros ($14,600) in damages, adding that Russia lacked "sufficient" justification for the "exceptional severity" of the five-year sentence and three-year ban on publishing for his 2006 conviction on charges of hate speech and public incitement to extremism.

Boris Stomakhin in a 2018 prison photograph
Boris Stomakhin in a 2018 prison photograph

The Moscow-based Sova Center, a respected monitor of the use and abuse of antiextremism legislation in Russia, has called the charges against Stomakhin in that case "appropriate," while adding that it was "perplexed" by the harsh sentence.

A well-known Russian neo-Nazi, by comparison, received a suspended sentence in 2006 after being convicted of hate speech that involved, in part, a manual for "street terror" posted on his political movement's website, the Sova Center noted.

Now in his fourth year of a seven-year sentenced based on two subsequent convictions, Stomakhin says he is incarcerated "for thoughtcrime" -- using a term from George Orwell's dystopic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four -- "and nothing else."

"All of my thinking aloud about this government never came to fruition and could not have inflicted the least bit of harm," Stomakhin wrote. "It would have been smarter for them simply not to notice me rather than crippling my life and simultaneously have their courts give me free advertising."

'Difficult And Agonizing'

Stomakhin, who has a qualified musculoskeletal disorder due to a 2006 spine injury, calls his time in a Russian prison "very difficult and agonizing."

He says he has faced pressure both from fellow prisoners who "actively pressure you, trying to force you to live by their loathsome [criminal underworld] rules," as well as from prison authorities who on several occasions placed him in solitary confinement using "any pretext."

In his current prison, Stomakhin says, guards frequently ransack his cell "so that I can't serve out my time too easily and quietly, to rattle my nerves, and to openly bully me."

"There's really no practical reason for conducting these cell checks. They've never found any banned items, and they know full well that I have no way of getting such things. I'm alone in the cell, don't interact with anyone, and don't go anywhere other than to bathe," he wrote.

Activists rallied in support of Stomakhin in February 2013.
Activists rallied in support of Stomakhin in February 2013.

Asked if his political views have changed since he was targeted by authorities, Stomakhin says: "Why would they?"

"They have only sharpened and become more defined under the influence of books I've read in prison, as well as observations of the life that surrounds me -- if it's even appropriate to use that word," he wrote.

'Rather Hopeless'

Stomakhin's words have resulted in at least one prison sentence and another criminal investigation for others in Russia as well.

In 2016, a court in the city of Tver sentenced engineer Andrei Bubeyev to two years in prison for reposting an article written by Stomakhin arguing that Russia illegally seized Crimea in 2014 and that the Ukrainian peninsula should be returned to Kyiv's control.

Later in 2016, a 62-year-old man was handed a two-year suspended sentence for reposting a Stomakhin article that Russian authorities had earlier deemed "extremist" and "threatening to Russia's territorial integrity."

Viktor Korb, a Russian journalist in the Siberian city of Omsk, is currently facing extremism charges for transcribing and publishing a 2015 speech that Stomakhin gave at his 2015 trial. He faces up to seven years in prison if convicted on charges of incitement to terrorism, justification of terrorism, and terrorist propaganda.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has criticized the case against Korb, saying that while Stomakhin's speech "indeed contains odious, offensive views," the transcript is based on a publicly available YouTube video of Stomakhin's courtroom speech.

"Nowhere in the publication does Korb express support of what Stomakhin said in his speech," HRW researcher Vladislav Lobanov wrote last month.

Stomakhin, whose mother died last year, is pessimistic about life after prison.

The case against Korb "unfortunately makes my prospects after my release from my current term even more nebulous," Stomakhin wrote.

"If I stay in Russia, it's inevitable that they will imprison me again," he wrote. "Overall, my future after this prison term looks like a dead end and appears to me to be rather hopeless."

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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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