New York, October 6, 2000–A local court in Makhachkala, the capital of Russia’s southern republic of Dagestan, convicted radio reporter Andrei Babitsky of using false documents and sentenced him to pay a fine 13,200 rubles (about US$475), according to international and local media reports.
The fine was waived, however, and the charges were immediately dropped under an amnesty program passed earlier this year by the Russian Duma. Babitksy’s defense team immediately announced plans to appeal the ruling and take his case to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg if necessary.
Babitsky, a reporter for the U.S. government-funded Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe had angered Russian military authorities with his critical reporting on the war in Chechnya. In mid-January, Babitsky disappeared while reporting in Chechnya and it was only two weeks later that Russian authorities acknowledged that he was in military custody.
On January 27 Babitsky was arrested and charged with “participating in an armed formation,” a charge which was later dropped. On February 3, Russian military authorities abruptly handed Babitsky over to purported Chechen rebels, whom Babitsky later claimed were loyal to Moscow.
Three weeks later, the journalist re-surfaced in Makhachkala and Russian authorities promptly arrested him on the charge of possessing a false Azeri passport, which Babitsky claimed had been forced on him by his Chechen captors after they had taken away his own documents. He was flown to Moscow and barred from leaving the city before his trial.
Even before the trial began, Babitsky, who pleaded not guilty, announced that he did not expect a fair hearing, saying Russian courts were not sufficiently independent. In his closing statement, he asserted that the court’s ruling in his case would be crucial for delineating the boundaries of press freedom in Russia.
“We are greatly disappointed by the decision of the court,” said CPJ’s deputy director Joel Simon. “There is no doubt that Babitsky was put on trial and convicted in retaliation for his reporting. We are very concerned that the verdict will be taken by other journalists as a warning.”