Russian newspaper founder arrested, criminally charged

New York, April 1, 2009–Police in the western city of Kaliningrad should drop trumped-up bribery charges against Arseny Makhlov, the founder of the independent weekly Dvornik, and allow him to work without fear of harassment, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. 

Makhlov was arrested and charged on Monday after Dvornik published articles on corruption in the building industry that implicated local officials. He was released today pending a criminal investigation.

Two plainclothes officers who said they were with Kaliningrad’s Department of Economic Crimes (OBEP), approached Makhlov as he was entering his home at around 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Dvornik‘s editor-in-chief, Aleksei Shabunin, told CPJ. A transit officer who was in a nearby patrol car told Makhlov that he had driven while intoxicated and asked him for money, Shabunin said. The OBEP officers opened the transit officer’s car door, pointed to 50 euros (US$66) on the dashboard, and accused Makhlov of bribing the transit officer in order to avoid a breathalyzer test, Shabunin told CPJ.

“We are disturbed by the arrest of Arseny Makhlov and the criminal charge filed against him in what appears to be a set-up by disgruntled local officials,” CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “We call on the Kaliningrad police to drop the case against Makhlov and allow him to do his job without fear of reprisal.”

Makhlov was taken to Kaliningrad’s Oktyabrsky district Internal Affairs Department, where he managed to send a text message to his colleagues at Dvornik. Two alcohol tests ordered by police at a local medical clinic sent to Dvornik showed Makhlov was sober, Shabunin told CPJ.

On Tuesday, police told Makhlov and his lawyer, Viktor Dorokhin, that the newspaper founder was a suspect in a criminal case, opened by Kaliningrad’s OBEP under Article 291 (bribing a public official), which carries up to eight years in prison. Makhlov was moved to a pretrial detention center, where he was kept until late Wednesday.

On the eve of Makhlov’s arrest, Dvornik published two articles that implicated Kaliningrad law enforcement and city administration officials in corruption in the booming building industry. As founder of the paper, Makhlov is active in newsgathering and editorial work, Shabunin told CPJ. The weekly is one of a handful of independent publications in the western exclave of Kaliningrad–a region cut off from Russia proper that is nestled between Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea. It regularly investigates corruption and economic crimes in the local government.

A year ago, an unidentified attacker stabbed Makhlov in the back after Dvornik published an article criticizing the illegal purchase of a landmarked building by a private company. The attack remains unsolved.