Court upholds two-year prison sentence for journalist

New York, August 17, 2005—A district court in Moscow upheld the conviction of editor and writer Pavel Lyuzakov on Tuesday, sentencing him to two years in a prison colony for illegal possession of a pistol. The journalist and colleagues say the charges against him were politically motivated and filed in retaliation for his criticism of Kremlin policies in Chechnya, according to the Moscow business daily Kommersant.

Lyuzakov edits the opposition news Web site Svobodnoye Slovo (Free Speech) and writes for two media outlets that focus on the conflict in Chechnya—the Web site KavkazCenter and the newspaper Separatist. He was convicted on May 16; his defense lawyer, Anna Stavitskaya, appealed the verdict while Lyuzakov remained in prison, according to local press reports.

Lyuzakov has been in custody for nearly seven months. Internal Affairs Department officers in Moscow detained him on January 20 on charges of carrying a loaded gun. An arrest warrant was issued five days later, local reports said.

Police said they apprehended Lyuzakov minutes after an acquaintance sold him an illegal firearm. Lyuzakov believed he was buying a tear gas pistol for self-protection, according to a report by the independent radio station Ekho Moskvy. Tear gas pistols are legal in Russia with government permits; Lyuzakov said the acquaintance was supposed to provide the permits.

Immediately after his arrest, Lyuzakov denied the charges against him and said Russian security services set him up for arrest to obstruct his work for KavkazCenter. Two days after Lyuzakov was detained, on January 22, FSB agents searched his house and seized print versions of KavkazCenter, Ekho Moskvy reported.

Lyuzakov, who has been attacked several times on the street, had asked the acquaintance to get him the tear gas pistol for self-protection, Kirill Podrabinek, a member of his defense team, said in a statement published by the Moscow-based news agency Prima.

Lyuzakov, his colleagues, and his defense team say the gun was deliberately planted in his pocket during the brief encounter with the acquaintance. The defense also said that authorities never questioned or prosecuted the individual who sold him the pistol.

Valeriya Novodvorskaya, leader of the Democratic Union opposition party that publishes Svobodnoye Slovo, told Ekho Moskvy that she believes the prosecution was a scheme by the Federal Security Service (FSB) to prevent Lyuzakov from writing for KavkazCenter.

The FSB has investigated Lyuzakov before. In February 2001, FSB agents searched Lyuzakov’s home and questioned him in an unspecified criminal investigation for “publicly appealing for the forcible change of the constitutional order,” “insulting a public official,” and “defaming persons by implicating them in a serious crime,” the Moscow-based reported. He was not charged.

Lyuzakov’s detention comes during an intensive campaign by FSB and prosecutors to intimidate and obstruct the work of independent journalists reporting on the ongoing war in and around Chechnya.

Earlier this month, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that reporters for the U.S. television network ABC were barred access to government officials and their accreditations would not be renewed when they expire. Russian authorities went on the offensive after the network broadcast an interview with Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev on its news program, “Nightline,” last month.

The FSB and prosecutors have also launched a series of politicized criminal investigations against journalists covering human rights abuses in the North Caucasus. They appear to be part of a broader campaign by the Kremlin to suppress independent reporting on the war and create an image that life in Chechnya is returning to normal.