Aleksandr Valov, editor-in-chief and founder of local news website BlogSochi, is serving a six-year prison sentence after being convicted of extortion in 2018. In an article written from prison, the journalist said he believed his arrest was an attempt to silence BlogSochi ahead of elections and the 2018 soccer World Cup, held in Russia.
Valov narrated during a video livestream of his arrest on January 19, 2018, as police broke his door, cut off the electricity, and beat him, according to the independent news site Meduza. BlogSochi reported that the police seized the blogger’s computer, documents, and money.
On January 21, 2018, a Sochi court charged Valov with extorting 300,000 rubles (US$4,900) from the city’s federal parliamentary deputy, Yuri Napso, according to the independent Russian television channel Dozhd.
During court proceedings, the journalist pleaded not guilty and said the case was politically motivated, according to media reports. The journalist’s arrest came after he published a photo report of a beach that Napso’s brother Boris rented and allegedly mismanaged.
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 [June-July] World Cup — 2018," in an article he wrote from prison that his colleagues published on his website, blogsochi.ru.
In March 2018, authorities shut down blogsochi.ru. Meanwhile, Valov’s Facebook account was hacked, and a sexually suggestive post that hinted at Valov’s sexual orientation was left on the journalist’s page on March 27, 2018, Aleksandr Popkov, the journalist’s defense attorney, told CPJ at the time.
The team of bloggers who worked with Valov revived the blog in July 2018 at a new domain, blogsochi.su, which continues to publish but does not host the blog’s archive.
On June 14, 2018, Valov was hospitalized with abdominal wounds, according to a medical report Popkov shared with CPJ and media reports. He was operated on the same day "for the penetrating wound in the abdomen," according to the medical report, dated June 15.
Speaking to CPJ from Sochi, Popkov said the case’s chief investigator, Yevgeniy Sidorenko, told him at the hearing that Valov had stabbed himself with a pen in the abdomen.
Popkov said he had reason to doubt the official account of the incident. "Valov was preparing his defense and was not depressed. This incident needs to be investigated," Popkov told CPJ. While in detention, Valov had filed numerous complaints about harsh conditions in prison, including cold cells, bad food, and lack of medical care for inmates, the lawyer said.
Previously, in July 2017, Yuri Napso had sued Valov and 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 million rubles ($16,000) and 500,000 rubles ($8,000), respectively, in damages after they lost their appeal. In the lead-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, BlogSochi reported on alleged corruption among local officials, as CPJ and news media reported at the time.
The trial, which began on September 29, 2018, was held behind closed doors and quickly adjourned. Popkov told CPJ that Valov had complained about being beaten up in a prison cell in early August.
In October 2018, Popkov shared with CPJ and posted on Facebook some documents from the investigation. Those documents included a July 26, 2016, court order to conduct surveillance of Valov, as well as his phones and emails, because "Valov belongs to a group of opposition-inclined individuals whose activities are aimed at organizing acts of civil disobedience with the use of extremist methods."
On December 26, 2018, a court in Sochi sentenced Valov to six years in prison and a fine of 700,000 rubles ($11,400). An appeals court upheld the sentence on August 30, 2019, media reported.
The journalist was initially held in a pretrial detention center in Armavir, about 370 kilometers north of Sochi. In July 2019, he was transported to a detention center in Sochi to prepare for the August hearing, but eventually participated via video conference from Armavir, according to Popkov.
On December 4, 2019, Valov was transferred to Penal Colony No. 14 in the Siberian city of Angarsk to serve his sentence, according to Kavkazky Uzel.
On July 19, 2021, Valov told a lawyer, Platon Ananyev, that the conditions he was kept in “are not much different from torture,” according to the Russian Journalists’ and Media Workers’ Union (JMWU), an independent trade group.
The jail’s administration puts enormous pressure on Valov, because he allegedly transmitted information about the poor conditions in the facility without permission, and prison authorities took away his personal belongings, including toothpaste and underwear, the JMWU report said, citing his lawyers. It said he was held in solitary confinement between June 18 and 23, 2021.
Andrei Jvirblis, a board member of JMWU, told CPJ in a phone interview in October 2022 that Valov did not have notable health issues and was able to see his lawyer on a regular basis.
On November 29, 2022, human-rights news website OVD-Info reported that Valov was sent to solitary confinement and placed under stricter conditions of imprisonment, with restrictions on making calls, as well as receiving packages and visits. Due to the new conditions, Valov was unable to attend a court hearing on November 28 regarding the review of his parole application, according to OVD-Info.
In October 2022, CPJ called the Russian Ministry of Interior, but nobody answered the phone. CPJ emailed the press service of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office, but did not receive any replies.