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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

LETTER FROM VLADIVOSTOK: Editor's Dry Hunger Strike

Grigory Pasko stood with a handful of visitors in a typhoon downpour Friday outside a city drunk tank, clutching a sleeping bag and a coat wrapped in a plastic shopping bag.

Hunching against the storm, the former navy journalist joined a lawyer, two reporters and several editors from the newspaper Arseniyevskiye Vesti, who had brought clothes and a bouquet to the paper's chief editor, Irina Grebneva.

A district court judge had jailed Grebneva on Thursday for five days on charges of "minor hooliganism" because her paper had printed profane ranting attributed to the Far Eastern Primorye region's governor, Yevgeny Nazdratenko, and deputy governor, Konstantin Tolstoshein. She immediately declared a dry hunger strike, forswearing all food or liquid until her release, scheduled for Tuesday.

Pasko envisioned such a scenario a year ago. The reporter was jailed on high treason charges for 20 months, until July 1999, because he had revealed the navy's dumping of radioactive waste in the Sea of Japan.

"Last year, I wrote that there will soon be arrests of people who are involved in the independent media in Russia," Pasko said. "And at that time, people were saying I was too prejudiced against the FSB [Federal Security Service]. I said, 'You can change your uniform to civilian clothing, you can cut off your mustache, but you can't change the psychology of a KGB agent.'"

It's hard to argue with Pasko. But in the regions, the problem isn't just the FSB, or the sensational arrests of media barons and murders of reporters. It is the absence of competing power centers outside the governor's office.

Consider Grebneva. Her only hope of early release f a day is an urgent matter when you are not drinking water f was Monday in a court loyal to Nazdratenko. Grebneva appeared in a Primorye regional courtroom packed with reporters and elderly supporters.

I don't know if she held to her vow not to drink anything, but she didn't look good. Pale and trembling, she said, "It was not the editor of Arseniyevskiye Vesti who was arrested; it was freedom of speech that was arrested in Primorye."

A troika of judges returned her to jail. Grebneva's babushka supporters shouted at them, "Shame on you!"

Vesti's crime f so noxious it did not warrant a trial f was printing a transcript of a tape introduced into an earlier court hearing. On the tape, made public by State Duma Deputy Viktor Cherepkov, voices said to be those of Primorye's top officials deliberated about how to help Vladivostok's mayor steal the June election. Some of it was so profanity-laden it scarcely made sense.

Vesti quoted Tolstoshein as saying, "[Expletive]. Nobody [expletive] works at your office. I'll [expletive] you. Just whup them. [Expletive] them [expletive]."

Tolstoshein has been known to swear at press conferences. He once cussed me out for seeking a comment when I approached him near a protest of unpaid workers. The FSB issued a press release in 1998 accusing him of going ballistic and swearing at citizens who met with him to discuss Vladivostok's water supply. Yet Tolstoshein said Monday, "Any sober person will say that it is not Tolstoshein."

The governor's office did not trouble itself to sue Vesti. Rather, it took the high road while a court cracked down on all the bad words printed on pages a child might happen across. A court summoned Grebneva on Thursday, and she left in handcuffs.

In a throwback to Soviet times, the Creative Association of Primorye Journalists f which utters not a peep when journalists are beaten by thugs or go unpaid for months f issued a statement denouncing Vesti for printing profanity.

You can buy a dictionary of Russian swear words in a bookstore, and the seedier papers routinely print profanity. So why was Grebneva arrested? It is probably only a coincidence that Vesti is an opposition paper that often attacks Nazdratenko.

Outside the drunk tank Friday, a guard refused to pass anything on to Grebneva. Her staff left with the bag of clothes; Pasko was stuck with a rain-soaked sleeping bag. A deputy editor set the bouquet on a jail windowsill, but a gust knocked it to the ground. She picked up the flowers and tied them to the bars with a ribbon. A guard appeared and noticed a few rose petals by the door. "What's this garbage doing here?" he asked. "Pick it up."

The editor gathered the petals, and everyone slogged off in the rain, wondering, how long can you live without water, anyway?