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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reporters Acquitted in State Secrets Trial

In a rare victory for the independent media, a Perm court on Tuesday acquitted two reporters accused of divulging state secrets in a series of articles about the Federal Security Service.

The case, which was prompted by an FSB complaint, had been roundly criticized by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, journalists and human rights groups.

"Justly, the verdict had to be like this, but justice does not always triumph in this country," said the reporters' lawyer, Yury Smidt.

The lawsuit against Konstantin Sterledev and Konstantin Bakharev of the Zvezda daily in Perm was prompted by articles they wrote last fall that said the local branches of the Interior Ministry and the FSB recruited a convicted drug dealer as an informer in exchange for allowing him to sell heroin and hashish in the region.

A third defendant in the case, former police Captain Sergei Dudkin, was found guilty of leaking the information to the reporters and received a two-year suspended sentence, Zvezda editor Sergei Trushnikov said.

Publishing information about informants or undercover agents is a punishable offense under the law, but the rule can only be applied to officials who possess the information as part of their work duties, not to journalists who learn it from their sources, Smidt said.

During the trial, which began June 20, prosecutors demanded that the reporters receive one- to two-year suspended jail terms and be banned from reporting for three years.

"This is an attack against the independent press under the cover of protecting state secrets," Trushnikov said by telephone from Perm. "It looks like the FSB has decided to flex its muscles."

Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, which conducted an independent investigation into the Perm case, said the charges may have been prompted by a desire to take control of the Perm regional press.

Perm is the only region in Russia where the authorities do not control a single major newspaper, Panfilov said. Zvezda, Perm's largest daily, is owned by its staff.

After the case against Sterledev and Bakharev was opened, parties connected with the local authorities expressed interest in buying out Zvezda's shares, Panfilov said, without naming names.

Sterledev and Bakharev expressed satisfaction with their acquittal Tuesday and promised not soften their reports, Interfax reported.

It was not immediately clear whether prosecutors would appeal.