Russian sentences former journalist Ivan Safronov to 22 years imprisonment for treason

Ivan Safronov, a former journalist and an aide to the head of Russia’s space agency Roscosmos who remains in custody on state treason charges, stands inside a defendants’ cage as he attends a court hearing in Moscow, Russia.

A Russian court on Monday sentenced a former journalist to 22 years in prison for treason after prosecutors said he disclosed state secrets, a ruling his supporters said was an unduly harsh punishment that showed the absence of media freedom in Russia.

Ivan Safronov, a former defence reporter for the Kommersant and Vedomosti newspapers turned adviser to the head of Russia’s space agency, was arrested in 2020 and accused of disclosing classified information.

Safronov’s lawyers told the RIA Novosti news agency they will appeal the verdict.

His supporters say the case is retribution for his reporting which exposed details of Russia’s international arms deals.

“Everybody who is close to Safronov believes the charge of treason is absurd,” journalist Katerina Gordeeva said after interviewing his mother, sister and former colleagues for a documentary about the case.

Human rights lawyer Pavel Chikov said the sentence was a “savage, demonstratively cruel punishment, corresponding to the current state of Russia.” He said he could not find any examples of any treason cases leading to such a lengthy sentence, let alone against a journalist.

Ahead of the sentencing, the European Union called on Russia to drop all charges against Safronov, 32, and release him unconditionally.

Prosecutors said Safronov shared state secrets about Russia’s arms sales in the Middle East to the Czech Republic’s foreign intelligence arm. He has denied the charges throughout and last month rejected a plea deal that would have seen him serve a 12-year prison sentence.

His arrest in July 2020 sparked outcry from Russian journalists, including at state-run outlets.

Safronov, 32, strongly denied the charges and said that the information he is alleged to have passed to the Czech Republic was all open source public information.

During the trial his legal team published links to 19 published articles and government statements that prosecutors claim constitute the “state secrets” Safronov is alleged to have passed to Czech foreign intelligence.

“Ivan never sent any secret information anywhere – for money or for free. All the prosecution’s witnesses stated in court that he was not engaged in criminal activity. He was an ordinary journalist, honestly doing his job,” his lawyers said in a statement.

His defence team believe the trial is retribution for Safronov revealing Russia’s plans to sell fighter jets to Egypt. The estimated $2-billion deal was scrapped soon after when the U.S. threatened sanctions on Cairo if it went ahead.

Ahead of Monday’s court hearing, several independent Russian media outlets called for Safronov to be released. In a statement, outlets including Meduza, Novaya Gazeta and TV Rain, said it was “obvious” Safronov was being punished for his reporting on Russia’s military procurement deals that had irked Russia’s defence ministry.

The heavy sentence – more than Russian courts typically hand down in murder cases – is seen as a landmark blow against Russian reporting amid an intensification of the pressure being put on press freedom by the Kremlin since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

Separately on Monday, a Moscow court revoked the publishing license for Novaya Gazeta, a flagship independent newspaper which ceased publishing days after Russia sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine and imposed strict new controls over media outlets.

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