Traffic police in Sochi detained Yarst, a Sochi correspondent for the public television channel OTR, while he was on his way to meet the head of the Sochi branch of Russia’s Investigative Committee, the agency tasked with handling serious crimes in the country, in connection with a story. Local news reports said police arrested him after saying they found drugs in his car, which Yarst denied.
A drug test performed on the journalist immediately after his detention showed no traces of drug use, local reports said. A search of Yarst’s home also showed no traces of drugs, according to his lawyer and local journalists.
Yarst was placed under house arrest. He was formally charged on May 31, 2013, with drug possession, drug use, and carrying of narcotics. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison, according to press reports. He was forbidden from receiving visitors, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
Yarst was investigating the case of a local girl, Diana Serdyukova, who was taken to Georgia by her stepfather, against the will of her blood relatives. Yarst was investigating the possible corruption of local officials in the case-specifically, allegations that they had taken bribes and allowed the girl to be taken abroad without her relatives’ consent, according to news reports. At the time of his arrest, Yarst was headed to the Investigative Committee agency to see the Serdyukova case files. His report for OTR was never finished.
Yarst’s lawyer, Aleksandr Popkov, told CPJ that his client’s detention and the official evidence against him were marred by procedural violations. Popkov said Yarst was detained by three officers with Sochi’s traffic police, who, according to Russian law, are not authorized to conduct searches. Popkov told Human Rights Watch that his client’s case files contain testimony by a “secret witness” who allegedly alerted the traffic police to the presence of powdered narcotics in Yarst’s car. But, Popkov said, no security cameras recorded the seizure of narcotics from Yarst, and traffic police testimony initially did not mention a secret witness. Yarst’s case file said that at least three different traffic police officers gave different reasons for stopping the journalist’s car in the first place, according to his lawyer.
Yarst’s lawyer and his friends and supporters believe that his arrest and continued detention are in retaliation for his work on the Serdyukova story, and his investigation of the potential involvement of local officials and police in allowing the girl to allegedly be taken out of Russia illegally.
Before he started worked for OTR in 2012, Yarst was a Sochi correspondent for the Moscow-based channel TV Tsentr.