Aleksandr Valov

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On January 19, 2018, authorities detained Aleksandr Valov, the editor-in-chief and founder of local news site BlogSochi, and two days later charged him with extortion, according to media reports.

Valov narrated during a video livestream of his arrest 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 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.

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, Popkov 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. But the old content is gone.

Valov has 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 addition, in the lead-up to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, BlogSochi reported on 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 journalist is being held in a pretrial detention center in Armavir, about 370 kilometers north of Sochi, according to Popkov.

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. Popkov told CPJ on October 30, 2018, that the trial was likely to continue well into 2019.

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