Russian editor faces five years in prison for “extremist activity”

New York, March 28, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the criminal prosecution of Viktor Shmakov, editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper Provintsialnye Vesti (Provincial News) in the Russian republic of Bashkortostan.

Prosecutors in the regional capital Ufa, 680 miles (1100 kilometers) east of Moscow, have charged Shmakov with “public calls for the realization of extremist activity using mass media” and “calls for insubordination to legal authorities,” according to local press reports. If convicted in the trial that began March 21, Shmakov faces up to five years in prison.

The charges against Shmakov stem from two articles published in an April 2006 edition of Provintsialnye Vesti that criticized corruption and human rights abuses in Bashkortostan. The articles also called for the resignation of the republic’s president, Murtaza Rakhimov, who has ruled the oil-rich and mostly Muslim republic since 1993, according to local press reports.

Shmakov did not write the articles. Authorities have filed the same charges against the author, local opposition leader Airat Dilmukhametov.

“The prosecution of our colleague Viktor Shmakov is another disturbing example of Russian authorities’ use of the full force of criminal law to stifle critical reporting and opinion,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Political criticism is not a crime. All charges against Viktor Shmakov must be dropped immediately.”

The persecution of Shmakov started on April 28, 2006, when Federal Security Service (FSB) agents arrested him for his paper’s critical reporting. He was sentenced to two months in jail, while the FSB and Interior Ministry said they were conducting a joint investigation into his alleged extremist activities. On May 16, 2006, the Supreme Court of Bashkortostan ruled that authorities did not have enough evidence to hold Shmakov, and ordered his release. However, authorities delayed implementing the court’s decision for 48 hours before releasing the journalist on May 19, 2006.

Bashkortostan prosecutors had initially added the charge of “organizing mass unrest” to Shmakov’s indictments, a count that provides for up to 10 years in prison, but later reduced to the lesser charge of “calling for insubordination to legal authorities” in August 2006.