Journalist sentenced to five years in prison camp released

New York, August 24, 2005—A court in the central Russian city of Smolensk has released independent journalist Nikolai Goshko who was sentenced in June to five years in a prison camp for criminal defamation. Goshko told CPJ today that he was surprised by the August 19 release order, which came after the prosecution agreed to change criminal defamation to the lesser charge of criminal insult.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the prosecution’s decision. However, I am sure that this happened under the pressure of public attention, and especially because of the outcry of international organizations such as CPJ,” Goshko said. He said his release was unconditional.

On June 6, a Smolensk arbitration court surprised both defense and prosecution with the severity of the sentence on Goshko, deputy editor-in-chief of the Odintsovo-based weekly newspaper Odintsovskaya Nedelya. Goshko is also a former Radio Vesna correspondent. The prosecution arose over a July 27, 2000 broadcast in which Goshko accused top Smolensk officials of masterminding the murder of Sergey Novikov, Radio Vesna’s owner and director, the day before. The officials filed a criminal defamation complaint at the Lenin Regional Court in Smolensk, demanding a one-year suspended prison sentence. The case was initially handled by the Lenin Regional Court but was later moved to the Smolensk arbitration court, which usually handles lesser crimes, such as domestic and administrative disputes, and divorce cases.

In late July the federal court hearing Goshko’s appeal reclassified the charges to criminal insult. The statute of limitations on this lesser charge is two years. On August 19, the court ruled that since the broadcast had taken place five years earlier the statute of limitations applied and judge Andrei Lantsov released Goshko.

Read CPJ’s alert from June 15.

“We are pleased with the court’s decision to release our colleague Nikolai Goshko who should not have been sentenced to prison for his broadcast in the first place,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “We urge Russian authorities to decriminalize defamation entirely. We further urge authorities to concentrate their efforts on finding, apprehending, and prosecuting those responsible for ordering and executing the murder of Smolensk journalist Sergey Novikov five years ago.”

Novikov was shot four times in the stairwell of his apartment building on July 26, 2000. The killer was never caught. Novikov’s colleagues believe the murder was politically motivated and related to Radio Vesna’s criticism of the Smolensk government.

Goshko told listeners in July 2000 that Novikov had said several days before the killing that he had information that several Smolensk officials were planning his assassination.