New York, September 3, 2004-—The Committee to Protect Journalists is outraged at today’s decision of a Moscow court to sentence prominent journalist Andrei Babitsky, a correspondent for the Russian Service of the U.S. government­funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), to five days in prison for “hooliganism.”

According to local press reports, police at Vnukovo Airport in Moscow first detained Babitsky yesterday morning on suspicion of carrying explosives. None were found and he was released. Then two young men approached him and tried to start a fight with him, according to radio station Ekho Moskvy. As a result, airport police detained him again, along with the two men.

Earlier reports said that Babitsky had been detained because he was “a victim of hooliganism,” but he was actually charged with “hooliganism” himself and sentenced to five days in jail today. Before his arrest, the journalist was en route to Beslan, North Ossetia, to cover the hostage crisis at an elementary school where about 40 heavily armed Chechen fighters had seized hostages.

“Andrei Babitsky’s detention is indefensible, and we demand his immediate and unconditional release,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “Once again, Russian authorities are using oppressive measures to keep journalists from reporting on stories related to the war in Chechnya.”

In a separate incident yesterday, another prominent Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, was reportedly poisoned en route to Beslan. She remains hospitalized in stable condition.

Staged fight
According to the Moscow-based Web site Grani.Ru, the two young men who approached Babitsky at the airport yesterday asked him to buy them beer, and when he refused, they started harassing him. At that time, airport police detained all three men at the airport police station for disorderly conduct, where they were kept until 5 p.m.

Babitsky said that the two men, who were later identified as airport workers, told him that they were instructed to pick a fight with him, Grani.Ru reported. Babitsky’s lawyer, Vladimir Artemov, has appealed the journalist’s sentence.

The guilty verdict was based entirely on the testimony of the Vnukovo Airport police officers, even though their accounts differed from those of other witnesses of the incident. Only Babitsky was sentenced; the two men who harassed him were released. Babitsky is currently being held at a temporary detention center on the outskirts of Moscow, RFE/RL reported.

In January 2000, Babitsky disappeared while on assignment in the Chechen capital of Grozny. After two weeks of denial and silence, officials in Moscow admitted that the reporter was being held by the Russian military. And after several more weeks of contradictory reports and intense pressure from local and international media and human rights organizations, Babitsky was released on February 2, 2000. Russian authorities held him in an apparent effort to prevent him from reporting on the armed conflict in Chechnya.

Following this incident, Babitsky moved to Prague, Czech Republic, with his family and continued to work as a broadcaster for RFE/RL’s Russian Service.

For more information, see CPJ’s September 2, 2004, alert.