Renowned Russian journalist Ivan Safronov was sentenced to 22 years in prison in a verdict that shocked his supporters for its severity, sending a grim warning about the dangers of reporting on Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Safronov was detained in 2020 on treason charges that he denies and which his legal team believe are punishment for his past reporting on the defence sector, particularly on arms deals.
His case precedes the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the timing and harshness of the verdict make it emblematic of the rapid way that the crackdown on the press in Russia has escalated since the war broke out.
“Ivan Safronov was found guilty of committing two crimes under the ‘high treason’ article of the criminal code,” Evgeny Smirnov, his lawyer, wrote on social media.
Safronov, a respected defence sector correspondent at the Kommersant business newspaper for many years before he left for a public relations job at the Russian space agency, was accused by the FSB security service of collecting state secrets about Russian arms sales and passing them on to a Nato member country.
Prosecutors last week offered Safronov, who has decried the charges as a “travesty of justice”, a 12-year-sentence if he pleaded guilty. But he refused, his lawyer Smirnov wrote, so they pursued 24 years.
“This is a terrifying amount of time,” Safronov’s supporters wrote in a statement shared by independent Russian media outlets, almost all of which now cover the country from abroad.
“It is clear to us that the reason for Ivan Safronov’s persecution is not ‘treason’, for which there is no proof, and instead his journalism,” the statement said.
As the trial was for treason charges, it took place behind closed doors, and information about the evidence against Safronov was withheld from the public.
But in a recent article, Russian investigative outlet Proekt reported that it had seen the indictment and found that the state secrets Safronov was accused of sending to a Czech citizen were already in the public domain.
Supporters have pointed instead to an incident that many believe earned Safronov some heavyweight enemies.
Prior to Safronov’s arrest two years ago, the FSB questioned him in an inconclusive civil proceeding about an article he co-wrote revealing a $2bn deal to sell Su-35 fighter jets to Egypt, according to Russian media. The US threatened Egypt with sanctions if the deal went ahead.
Safronov’s sentence coincided with another major blow to Russian independent journalism, as the Novaya Gazeta newspaper announced it had lost its media licence.
Independent media outlets and their staff have been almost completely muzzled inside Russian since the start of the war, with the harsh crackdown leading most local outlets to close their offices and relocate abroad.
Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s best known independent newspapers, edited by Nobel prizewinner Dmitry Muratov, kept publishing for another month after the start of the war. But it suspended publication in late March after two warnings from authorities.
By choosing to suspend itself, rather than be shut down, Novaya Gazeta retained its licence in the hope of returning to work inside Russia in future.
But on Monday, a Moscow court revoked this licence. The move came just days after the death of one of the newspaper’s founders, Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, who directed funds from his own Nobel Peace Prize towards buying the paper its first computers.
Muratov, who has remained in Moscow, said the paper would lodge an appeal. “This is a wretched decision,” he said.