Aleksandr Valov, editor-in-chief and founder of local news site 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 football 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, a Sochi court charged Valov with extorting 300,000 rubles (US$4,540) 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 BlogSochi.
In March 2018, authorities shut down the blog (blogsochi.ru). At the same time, Valov’s Facebook account was hacked and a sexually suggestive post that hinted at Valov’s sexual orientation was left on the journalist’s Facebook 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.
Valov had previously provoked the ire of Russian officials with his reporting. In July 2017, Yuri Napso 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 1,000,000 rubles ($15,000) and 500,000 rubles ($7,500) 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, according to media reports from the time.
In October 2018, Popkov shared with CPJ and posted to 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 June 14, 2018, Valov was hospitalized with abdominal wounds, according to a medical report Valov’s lawyer 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, 2018. The report said "his health condition did not allow him to be transported and attend" a previously scheduled hearing. On June 18, 2018, a Sochi city court held the hearing in Valov’s absence and extended his detention to July 19, 2018. The journalist was transported on June 15, 2018, from the city hospital where he first received treatment to a prison hospital, Popkov told CPJ.
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 said. 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, Popkov said.
The trial that 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.
On December 26, 2018, a court in Sochi sentenced Valov to six years in prison and a fine of 700,000 rubles ($10,000). An appeals court upheld the sentence on August 30, 2019, media reported. The regional news site Kavkazsky Uzel quoted the journalist’s civil defender Yevgeniy Vitishko on August 31, 2019, as saying that the defense team was preparing a cassation appeal.
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 northeast Archangelsk region to serve his sentence, according to Kavkazky Uzel.
One of Valov’s lawyers, Irina Marchenko, was quoted by Kavkazsky Uzel as saying that the journalist was placed in solitary confinement for 14 days in January 2020, allegedly for not following prison rules. Valov complained of cold and darkness in the cell, according to that report.
The journalist’s mother, Olga Valova, told Kavkazsky Uzel that she was not allowed to send Valov warm clothes and food while he was in solitary confinement.
CPJ called Penal Colony No. 14 in late 2020, but nobody answered the phone. In a September 2020 email, the Ministry of Interior responded to CPJ’s request for comment saying that the request was forwarded to Russia’s Investigative Committee; the committee did not respond to CPJ’s questions.