Maria Ponomarenko

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Maria Ponomarenko, a correspondent for independent news website RusNews, is serving a six-year prison sentence after being convicted by a Russian court of spreading “fake” information about the Russian army. Russian authorities detained her on April 23, 2022, according to her outlet and multiple news reports

According to Sibir.Realii, the Siberia-focused project run by the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Ponomarenko was charged under Article 207.3.2.e of the criminal coe, which bans disseminating false information on the basis of “political, ideological, racial, national, or religious hatred.” 

Authorities allege that she was connected to the now-shuttered Telegram news channel “No Censorship,” and that she published a post about the Russian bombing of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, according to those news reports and the banned human rights organization Memorial. Authorities claimed that Ponomarenko published false information that the Russian Aerospace Forces carried out an airstrike on the Drama Theater in Mariupol, even though she was aware that the Ministry of Defense and other official sources had denied responsibility. 

On March 4, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin enacted amendments to the criminal code that impose prison terms for spreading “fake” information, specifically about the Russian military, as CPJ documented and media reported, in the wake of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Ponomarenko’s lawyer Dmitry Chitov told CPJ via messaging app that the journalist denied the charges. Chitov said that according to Ponomarenko, this criminal case could be connected to her “previous activities,” but did not specify which ones. Ponomarenko also claimed authorities had not shown that she was connected to the post, according to independent news outlet SOTA

On June 16, 2022, SOTA reported that Ponomarenko claimed that the charges against her are retaliation for her attempts in 2020 to draw attention to the lack of housing for orphans in her hometown of Barnaul. RusNews journalist Irina Salomatova told CPJ via messaging app that Ponomarenko had joined RusNews in spring 2021. “The scandal with housing for orphans took place in 2020, even before she came to us. Maria revealed this corruption scheme as an activist and blogger.” Salomatova said. 

Ponomarenko had recently covered protests in Novosibirsk and St. Petersburg against the Russian invasion of Ukraine for RusNews, and she was previously detained and fined over her coverage of anti-war rallies, according to reports.

Authorities searched Ponomarenko’s home on April 25, 2022, took testimony from her 16-year-old and 13-year-old daughters, and transferred the journalist to Pretrial Detention Center No. 5 in St. Petersburg two days later, according to multiple news reports by SOTA. 

On July 15, 2022, SOTA reported that Ponomarenko was fined 15,000 rubles (US$245) for a September 2021 comment on TikTok that the authorities considered “humiliating” for police officers. 

Two days before, Sibir.Realii had reported that Ponomarenko was forcibly injected with an “unknown substance” while held at a psychiatric hospital and could not remember anything for three days.

On September 16, 2022, Ponomarenko said in a court hearing that her detention conditions led her to cut open her veins, her outlet reported. “The only person I can injure in a state of hysteria and depression is myself," Ponomarenko told the court. During that hearing, she said that she has been diagnosed with a psychological disorder and suffers from claustrophobia. She also said that did not receive psychiatric care.

According to RusNews, Ponomarenko was placed in solitary confinement from September 6 to 13, 2022, for breaking a taped-up window in her cell.

On November 14, 2022, the court moved Ponomarenko to house arrest, according to her outlet, which specified that she was “in good spirits” during the hearing. In January 2023, Ponomarenko was sent back to a pretrial detention center from house arrest at her own request due to an “unfavorable home environment,” RusNews reported. 

On February 7, 2023, prosecutors requested that Ponomarenko receive a nine-year sentence. In her final statement on February 14, Ponomarenko said that she might have asked for leniency if she had committed a real crime, but that she had not.

On February 15, a court in Barnaul convicted Ponomarenko of spreading false information about the Russian military and sentenced her to six years in prison, along with a five-year ban on journalistic activities following her release. On April 20, authorities upheld Ponomarenko’s sentence, according to media reports. 

On October 4, RusNews reported that Ponomarenko was placed in solitary confinement for 25 days for “lying down during the day” when she fainted and for being unable to get out of her bed because of pain in her lower back shortly after her transfer to Prison No. 6 in the Siberian village of Shipunovo. 

A psychological and psychiatric examination revealed that Ponomarenko has a form of  personality disorder and needs medical psychiatric assistance, which she is denied, her outlet said. 

Chitov told CPJ in October 2023 that he had last seen Ponomarenko on October 5. Two days later, RusNews called her situation “critical,” and said that “her physical and psychological condition is deteriorating sharply.” On the same day, supporters of the journalist launched an online petition against the violation of her rights in prison.

On November 2, RusNews reported that Russian authorities had opened a new criminal case against Ponomarenko for allegedly using violence against prison staff, a charge that carries a sentence of up to five years in jail. The journalist allegedly resisted being escorted to a disciplinary commission by two prison employees, according to human-rights website OVD-Info. Chitov told CPJ that the new case against Ponomarenko was opened on October 26, and that she was formally charged on December 8.

On November 4, RusNews reported that Ponomarenko had been moved to a high-security detention unit of her prison for at least six months.

In October 2023,

CPJ emailed the press service of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office

for comment

but did not receive any replies.