Russia drops extortion charges against journalist after outcry

Igor Rudnikov's supporters strongly contested the extortion charges, saying they were punishment for his journalism.

    The prosecution had demanded a 10-year sentence in a strict-regime penal colony for the 53-year-old [Olga Maltseva/AFP]
    The prosecution had demanded a 10-year sentence in a strict-regime penal colony for the 53-year-old [Olga Maltseva/AFP]

    A Russian court has released a newspaper editor who had been facing extortion charges following an outcry from supporters and international organisations.

    Igor Rudnikov, founder and editor of the weekly Novye Kolesa (New Wheels) in the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, had been in detention since November 2017, accused of extorting $50,000 from a senior investigator.

    The prosecution had demanded a 10-year sentence in a strict-regime penal colony for the 53-year-old.

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    Supporters had vehemently contested the charges, saying they were punishment for his independent journalism.

    On Monday, a district court in Russia's second largest city of Saint Petersburg ruled there were no grounds to convict him of extortion but found him guilty of a lesser charge of acting without lawful authority.

    The judge set him free because the new charges are not punishable by jail.

    He was sentenced to community service but is exempt from it because of the time spent in detention.

    Speaking to reporters afterwards, Rudnikov said he was surprised by the verdict.

    "I thought that justice would prevail in two to six years but I did not think that it would happen today," he said.

    In June 2017, Rudnikov's newspaper claimed that the head of the powerful Investigative Committee for the Kaliningrad region, Viktor Ledenev, owned a luxury country house he had not declared as an asset.

    Several months later Rudnikov was badly beaten and arrested.

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    Supporters and international organisations had condemned the case against Rudnikov, with Reporters Without Borders saying he was a "victim of a politically-motivated reprisal".

    The court ruling on Monday is a rare victory for Russia's embattled rights community and independent journalists and comes shortly after criminal charges were dropped against Moscow-based reporter Ivan Golunov.

    Golunov, an investigative reporter for Meduza, a Russian-language website based in EU member Latvia, was this month detained after police apparently planted drugs on him, in a case also seen by supporters as punishment for his reporting.

    Golunov was released last week and the charges against him dropped after supporters mounted an unprecedented public campaign in his defence.

    The case has prompted wide-reaching questions about how Russian law-enforcement agencies operate.

    Kremlin critics say charges of drug offences or extremism are routinely used in Russia to silence activists or to settle scores with opponents in disputes.

    More journalists still detained

    Rudnikov said he could not rule out that his release came as a result of Golunov's case.

    "I am very happy that charges were lifted against him and I am hoping that the guilty party will be punished," he said.

    Reporters Without Borders welcomed Rudnikov's release.

    "Those who beat and jailed Igor Rudnikov for 20 months must be brought to justice," Johann Bihr, the head of the watchdog's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, told AFP news agency.

    "This victory shows once again that it is possible to snatch journalists from prison in Russia."

    Six journalists remain unjustly detained in Russia, according to the watchdog.

    President Vladimir Putin last week sacked two senior police officers over Golunov's arrest but there have been no public statements as to the possible motives behind the police setup.

    Last week, up to 3,000 people took part in an unsanctioned march to urge broad reform of police and courts.

    The protest was brutally crushed and more than 500 people were detained, according to OVD-Info, a rights group that tracks detentions.

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    SOURCE: AFP news agency