New York, June 15, 2005—An arbitration court in the central Russian city of Smolensk convicted independent journalist Nikolai Goshko on charges of criminal defamation and sentenced him to five years in a prison colony for defaming three Smolensk officials in a July 2000 broadcast on the independent station, Radio Vesna.
On June 6, Judge Irina Malinovskaya surprised both the defense and the prosecution with the harsh verdict against Goshko, deputy editor-in-chief of the Odintsovo-based weekly newspaper Odintsovskaya Nedelya and former Radio Vesna correspondent, according to local press reports.
On July 27, 2000, Goshko made statements on Radio Vesna that accused top Smolensk officials of masterminding the murder of Sergey Novikov, Radio Vesna's owner and director, the day before. Following the broadcast, the officials filed a criminal defamation complaint against Goshko at the Lenin Regional Court in Smolensk, demanding a one-year suspended prison sentence for the journalist. The case was initially handled by the Lenin Regional Court, but was later moved to the arbitration court in Smolensk, local reports said.
"Nobody expected an actual prison sentence for Goshko, let alone a five-year one," Aleksandr Asadchy, editor-in-chief of Odintsovskaya Nedelya, told CPJ in a telephone interview yesterday. "Goshko's trial had been dragging for almost five years and everybody thought this [June 6] hearing would be a formality, so he did not even bring his lawyer." Police took Goshko to a trial detention center immediately after the verdict was read. The defense will appeal the sentence in the next 10 days, Asadchy said.
Russian courts of arbitration have the jurisdiction to handle lesser crimes, such as domestic and administrative disputes, and divorce cases, according to the news agency Itar Tass. It is highly unusual for a court of arbitration to issue a sentence as severe as five years in prison, according to the Smolensk Internet news journal Ob.com.
Novikov was shot and killed in the stairwell of his apartment building at around 9 p.m. on July 26, 2000. The killer, who was never apprehended, shot him four times and fled through a back door. Novikov's colleagues believe the murder to be politically motivated and related to Radio Vesna's critical editorial stance toward the Smolensk government.
Several days before the killing, Goshko told listeners in July 2000, Novikov said he had information that several Smolensk officials were planning his assassination.
"We're outraged that Nikolai Goshko is in jail while those who murdered Sergey Novikov are free," said Ann Cooper, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. "We believe that the court should overturn Goshko's conviction, Parliament should repeal Russia's antiquated criminal defamation law, and authorities should prosecute Sergey Novikov's killers."