Yabloko Head Accused of Blackmail

The head of the liberal Yabloko party's Penza region branch was charged with extortion Wednesday for purportedly trying to blackmail the governor.

Penza's Leninsky District Court ordered Oleg Kochkin, Yabloko's top official in the region and publisher of the independent weekly newspaper Lyubimaya Gazeta, to remain in custody during the investigation, regional court official Marina Shcheglova said by telephone Wednesday evening.

Yabloko officials said Kochkin was framed as revenge for numerous critical articles about Penza Governor Vasily Bochkaryov.

He is the third head of a regional Yabloko branch to face a criminal investigation this year.

Federal Security Service officers detained Kochkin in a sting operation Monday as he accepted 2 million rubles ($85,000) in exchange for not publishing compromising material about Bochkaryov, Shcheglova said.

Kochkin, 41, had also demanded that a senior regional official give him with an apartment worth 4.2 million rubles ($178,000) in exchange for not publishing the information, Shcheglova said.

If convicted of extortion, Kochkin faces up to 15 years in prison.

Olga Sorokina, deputy head of the regional Yabloko branch, said Kochkin had suspicions he was being set up when he received a phone call from a regional government official asking him to attend a 1 p.m. meeting at the government's headquarters Monday.

Kochkin called a friend and said, "If I am not back by 2 p.m., start looking for me," Sorokina said.

FSB officers detained Kochkin when he arrived at the government headquarters, Sorokina said.

Lyubimaya Gazeta's offices in Penza and the city of Kuznetsk were subsequently searched, said Alexei Lomonov, the weekly's editor-in-chief.

"Kochkin rarely entered journalistic spheres," Lomonov said. "I don't know how or why he would ever attempt to blackmail anyone."

The regional branch of the FSB declined to comment Wednesday.

Kochkin was a deputy in the Penza regional legislature from 2002 to 2006. In May 2005, he was the only one of 43 deputies to vote against Bochkaryov's reappointment as governor.

Senior Yabloko official Sergei Mitrokhin called the case politically motivated and said the allegations further convinced party members that "the actions against Yabloko will not stop until we get a lawful government."

Maxim Reznik, head of Yabloko's St. Petersburg branch, was detained March 3 and charged with assaulting a police officer -- charges the party says are fabricated. Reznik was released from custody last week, but still faces charges.

Authorities in Karelia last month opened a criminal investigation into Vasily Popov, Yabloko's top regional official, who is also suspected of extortion.

There have been several high-profile extortion cases involving the media in recent years.

In September, Boris Zemtsov, deputy editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, was charged with blackmailing an unidentified senior official by demanding $30,000 for not running a damaging story, the Interior Ministry said at the time.

The newspaper said he was preparing a report about Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev, in which the official was accused of mismanagement.