Opposition editor released from prison after 48-hour delay

New York, May 19, 2006—Authorities in the Russian republic of Bashkortostan today finally implemented a Supreme Court ruling to free editor Viktor Shmakov from pre-trial detention after a 48-hour delay, local media reported.

Shmakov, the 63-year-old editor-in-chief of Provintsialniye Vesti (Provincial News), said he believed he was kept in jail for an extra two days to prevent him from attending an opposition rally on Thursday evening, the online news agency Rosbalt.ru reported.

Shmakov was arrested April 28 after publishing articles accusing local authorities of corruption, and calling for the resignation of President Murtaza Rakhimov, who has ruled the oil-rich and mostly Muslim republic since 1993. Journalists in the regional capital, Ufa, believe he was also detained for political activities, which included preparing for the planned visit to Ufa in late May of Mikhail Kasyanov, a former Russian prime minister and outspoken critic of the Kremlin.

The Supreme Court in Bashkortostan ruled on Wednesday that Shmakov’s arrest was unwarranted, and ordered his release. 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 the two articles he had published. The Court told Shmakov not to leave Ufa, which lies 680 miles (1100 kilometers) east of Moscow, while the investigation continued.

Federal Security Service (FSB) officials have already transferred Shmakov’s case to prosecutors. After his release, Shmakov went for a medical checkup and then reported to the prosecutor’s office for additional questioning, the ANNews.ru news Web site reported. Asked if he would resume planning for Kasyanov’s visit, Shmakov said “after everything that’s happened, I doubt the visit will happen,” ANNews.ru reported.

Shmakov said that he and his colleagues planned to set up a new organization called the Foundation for Supporting a Free Press. Shmakov said that the press needed to unite to fight press restrictions.

On April 29, a district court ordered Shmakov held for two months while the FSB and Interior Ministry conducted a joint investigation into the two articles published in a special edition of Provintsialniye Vesti. 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 for opposition newspapers, according to the ANNews.ru.

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.