Court frees opposition newspaper editor from pre-trial detention

New York, May 16, 2006—The Supreme Court in the Russian republic of Bashkortostan today ordered the release from pre-trial detention of Viktor Shmakov, the 63-year-old editor-in-chief of Provintsialniye Vesti (Provincial News), according to local press reports. The court said authorities did not have enough evidence to hold Shmakov on the grounds that he would continue his “extremist activities” and obstruct a criminal investigation into two articles he had written critical of the government.

The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomed Shmakov’s release and called on the authorities to drop all charges against him.

The Supreme Court told Shmakov not to leave the capital, Ufa, which is 680 miles (1100 kilometers) east of Moscow, while the investigation continued.

On April 29, a district court ordered Shmakov held for two months while the Federal Security Service (FSB) and Interior Ministry conducted a joint investigation into the two articles published in a special edition of Provintsialniye Vesti in April. The articles criticized corruption and human rights abuses in Bashkortostan and called for the resignation of President Murtaza Rakhimov, who has ruled the oil-rich and mostly Muslim republic since 1993.

“Viktor Shmakov has already been deprived of his liberty for three weeks. We are pleased that he is out of jail,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “However, political criticism should never be a crime and there is no reason for the government to continue with its investigation,” she added.

Authorities opened a criminal case against Shmakov on April 26 saying that they suspected him of seeking to overthrow the government under Article 280 of the Criminal Code, which bans using the media to call for “extremist activity.” The two articles, bylined only with the initials “A.D,” provided advice on how to participate in antigovernment protests.

The special edition of Provintsialniye Vesti was distributed to opposition activists ahead of an April 27 meeting of local opposition parties in Ufa. Authorities deployed police to search cars entering the city ahead of the opposition meeting for opposition newspapers, according to the news Web site.

On April 27, FSB agents raided the offices of the Communist Party and the Coordination Council of the United Opposition, questioned opposition leaders, and confiscated computers, documents and copies of Provintsialniye Vesti. The following day they arrested Shmakov.

On May 7, prosecutors filed charges against Shmakov under two articles of the Criminal Code; Article 280 bans using the media to call for “extremist activity” and Article 212 bans “organizing mass unrest,” according to local press reports.

Shmakov’s arrest was seen by many in Ufa as retaliation for his newspaper’s criticism of local authorities and his opposition activities, which included making arrangements for Mikhail Kasyanov—a former Prime Minister and outspoken critic of the Kremlin—to visit Ufa in late May, according to local press reports.