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People enjoy a sunny day just outside the Fisht stadium, at the sea front in Sochi, Russia in June 2017. A Sochi court charged local blogger Aleksandr Valov with extorting money from the city's federal parliamentary deputy. (Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach)

Russian authorities arrest Sochi blogger on extortion charges

January 26, 2018 2:27 PM ET

New York, January 26, 2018--Russian authorities should immediately drop the charges against journalist Aleksandr Valov and release him from custody, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Authorities on January 19 detained Valov, the editor-in-chief and founder of a local news site BlogSochi, and, two days later, charged him with extortion, according to media reports.

Valov ran a video livestream of his arrest during which he narrated police breaking his door, cutting off the electricity, and beating him, according to the independent news site Meduza.

BlogSochi reported that the police seized the blogger's computer, documents, and money during Valov's arrest.

On January 21, a Sochi court charged Valov with extorting 300,000 rubles (US$5,370) from the city's federal parliamentary deputy, Yuri Napso, according to the independent Russian television channel Dozhd (Rain).

During court proceedings, the journalist pleaded not guilty and said the case was politically motivated, according to the media reports. The journalist's arrest came after he published a photo report of a beach Yuri Napso's brother Boris rented and allegedly mismanaged.

Valov faces up to seven years in prison if found guilty, his defense attorney Aleksandr Popkov told Dozhd during an interview.

On January 25, a judge upheld a lower court's January 21 decision to detain Valov until March 19 when his trial is scheduled to begin, according to BlogSochi.

"The charges against Aleksandr Valov seem politically motivated," CPJ deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney said. "Exposing political corruption is an important function of an independent press. Valov should be released immediately and the charges against him dropped. Repeated charges against a critical journalist cement Russia's record as a free press offender."

CPJ was unable to reach immediately Russian authorities for comment.

Valov said his arrest was "an attempt to shut down the major and only independent [media] project of Sochi ahead of the [March 18, 2018] presidential elections and World Cup - 2018," which will take place in Russia, in an article he wrote from prison that his colleagues published on BlogSochi.

Valov has previously provoked the ire of Russian officials with his reporting. In July 2017, Yuri Napso sued Valov and a BlogSochi reporter, Vladimir Melnikov, for defamation and won, after the site published an investigation about a section of beach the politician had allegedly appropriated for a private swimming pool. Valov and Melnikov were ordered in December 2017 to pay the politician 1,000,000 rubles ($18,000) and 500,000 rubles ($9,000) respectively in damages after they lost their appeal.

In the lead-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, BlogSochi reported on corruption among local officials, according to media reports from the time.

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