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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Prison Note Warns Of Totalitarianism




In a note passed from his cell in a shabby jail Thursday, Vladimir Gusinsky warned that his arrest foretells Russia's return to the brutal days of labor camps for political prisoners.


"This is political intrigue, organized by high-ranking representatives of the government who consider freedom of speech a danger,'' he said in a note statement given to his attorney Genri Reznik.


The officials, whom Gusinsky didn't name, look on free news media as "an obstacle to building a new Russia as they see it, which in effect means a return to the totalitarian past, complete with gulags,'' said Gusinsky, the head of Media-MOST, whose holdings include NTV television.


He was referring to the Soviet-era system of harsh labor camps filled with political prisoners as well as criminals.


Reznik read the statement outside Moscow's deteriorating Butyrskaya Prison, where Gusinsky is held.


The case has raised similar fears among many Russians.


Since Putin became president this year, the Kremlin has been seen as cracking down on independent-minded media with actions such as the detention of Radio Liberty reporter Andrei Babitsky and the raid by masked, gun-toting police on Gusinsky's offices last month.


"Putin started tightening the screws and it's still going on. I, for one, am afraid,'' said Galina Ivanova, a 49-year-old engineer.


At a Moscow rally, some demonstrators drew a parallel between the arrest and Putin's unbending pursuit of the war in Chechnya.


"We see that the mass media that covered the war in Chechnya ? that gave air time to those who disagreed with the official policy are subjected to illegal persecution,'' said demonstrator Lyudmila Bakhnina.


Gusinky's news organizations, whichinclude the daily Segodnya and magazine Itogi, have run stories critical of the Chechnya campaign and on alleged high-level corruption.


The arrest has been widely seen abroad as a move against free-thinking media, and some observers suggest Gusinsky's status as leader of the Russian Jewish Congress also figures in.


Israel stepped up pressure for his release Thursday, with Prime Minister Ehud Barak calling for officials to reconsider the arrest.


Prosecutors say Gusinsky is suspected of taking part in the theft of $10 million in state funds in a privatization deal.


In his statement, Gusinsky said prosecutors failed to "put forward any legally sound, or at least literate and coherent, accusations.''


"During the first interrogation, I witnessed a laughable scene with two investigators quarreling and interrupting each other for half an hour as they tried to say what they suspect me of,'' he said. "I could only call that an absurdity. ''


Reznik referred to official statements accusing Gusinsky as "delirium.''


He urged Putin to fire Prosecutor General Vladimir Ustinov for "trampling the law.'' Ustinov has refused to discuss the case with the media.


Reznik said that confinement in a hot and cramped cell was bad for Gusinsky's health, which he described as not very strong. However, he added that the defense was not going to complain because other cells in the overcrowded prison are worse.


Gusinsky was allowed to have a television and a refrigerator in his cell, said Justice Ministry officials.


As the case plays out, Western businessmen were nervously trying to figure out what it bodes for the future. One of the concerns is whether the arrest signals a crackdown on the powerful businessmen known as oligarchs, such as Boris Berezovsky.


"If it is the beginning of an attack on the oligarchs as a class, it's good news,'' said Eric Krause, chief strategist of the Moscow brokerage Nikoil. "If Berezovsky were arrested, the market would go up 25 percent. Foreign investors would be dancing in the street.''


But so far there has been no major fallout. "It's premature to predict the effect on the business community at this time,'' said Scott Blacklin, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce.