Editor of independent weekly imprisoned in Mordoviya

New York, July 19, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists expressed concern today at the imprisonment of Anatoly Sardayev, founder and editor-in-chief of the independent weekly newspaper Mordoviya Segodnya (Mordoviya Today) in the city of Saransk, the capital of the central Russian republic of Mordoviya.

The Lenin District Court in Saransk found Sardayev guilty on June 29 of embezzling money and misusing funds as head of the Mordoviya postal service in 2004. He was sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison and fined 105,000 rubles (US$4,100), local press reported. But according to his colleagues and press freedom groups, Sardayev is being punished for his paper’s critical editorial policy toward local authorities.

“We are troubled by the lengthy prison sentence handed to Anatoly Sardayev,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “The history of the local authorities’ harassment of Sardayev and his newspaper casts doubt over the independence of the Mordoviya judicial system. We call on the Supreme Court of Mordoviya to take the record of official harassment of Sardayev into account and give his appeal a fair consideration.” An appeal was filed on June 30.

Sardayev’s colleagues are convinced he was targeted because of Mordoviya Segodnya’scriticism of local governor Nikolai Merkushkin. “We have no doubts that the real reason for his persecution is his long-standing conflict between him and Nikolai Merkushkin,” Natalya Belyanina, deputy editor-in-chief of Mordoviya Segodnya, said in a statement.

Mordoviya postal service employees testified at Sardayev’s trial that he had used postal service money to build a tennis court for Saransk residents, and to restore the old post office building in Saransk, said Igor Telin, Saransk correspondent for the Moscow-based Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES).

The leading Russian press freedom groups, CJES and Glasnost Defense Foundation (GDF), have both documented and protested official harassment against Mordoviya Segodnya and Sardayev dating back to 2004.

After Mordoviya Segodnya published an article that year that called for the resignation of Governor Merkushkin, the article’s author, A. Eryomkin, was convicted of alleged possession of explosives and sentenced to two years in prison, CJES reported.

In February 2004, the Lenin District Prosecutor’s Office in Saransk opened a criminal case against Sardayev on what they said was his abuse of authority, forgery, appropriation and squandering of funds, and banned him from leaving the city, according to CJES.

About six months later, Saransk prosecutors imprisoned Sardayev for a week for allegedly failing to appear in court, CJES’s Telin told CPJ. The detention came just as Sardayev was working on a Mordoviya Segodnya edition that detailed a list of businesses owned by Merkushkin and his family, local press reported. On October 17, 2005, the Supreme Court of Republic of Mordoviya ruled that Sardayev’s detention was illegal.

The repeated judicial harassment has harmed the newspaper. Since 2005, all regional distributors have refused Mordoviya Segodnya their services, CJES and GDF reported. Telin told CPJ that Mordoviya residents can only subscribe to the paper if they threaten to take postal officials to court. As a result, Mordoviya Segodnya’s circulation has fallen from 25,000 in 2005 to just 3,000 in 2007, according to local press reports.