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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In a First, a Reporter Is Convicted of Libel

In an unprecedented case that media rights advocates say may open the way for a barrage of criminal cases against independent journalists, a Chelyabinsk reporter has been sentenced to one year in prison on libel charges filed by the regional administration.

German Galkin, publisher of Rabochaya Gazeta newspaper and deputy chief editor of Vecherny Chelyabinsk daily, was tried in connection with articles that accused the regional administration of misspending budget funds and suggested that Deputy Governor Konstantin Bochkarev had pedophiliac tendencies.

Galkin denied that he was the author of the nonbylined articles, and Vecherny Chelyabisnk's politics editor, Andrei Koretsky, said Monday that the writing style was quite different from Galkin's. But the court decided otherwise.

The articles, published in Rabochaya Gazeta in July 2002, said the Chelyabinsk administration spent millions of dollars -- or about 10 percent of the local budget -- over the past few years on the creation of a regional television channel that would promote the adminstration's views, Koretsky said.

Considerable funds also were used to buy Mercedeses, Volvos and jeeps for local officials, the articles said. Koretsky insisted that the reports were accurate.

The articles also hinted that Bochkaryov had a predilection for young boys. But "nobody has directly accused him of pedophilia," Koretsky said in a telephone interview from Chelyabinsk.

The Rabochaya Gazeta issue that the articles appeared in never reached the streets because all copies of the newspaper were seized shortly after leaving the printing house. The criminal case against Galkin was opened in July 2002 on the request of Bochkaryov and another deputy governor, Andrei Kosilov.

After a trial of several weeks, Galkin was sentenced Friday. He plans to appeal. Galkin, who is also a local leader of the Liberal Russia party, said in his closing statement Thursday that the case was clearly politically motivated.

"This would explain the fact that throughout the investigation prosecutors tried to present their conclusions in place of evidence and in the absence of evidence," Galkin told the closed-door court session in his speech, the text of which was obtained by The Moscow Times.

Since the start of President Vladimir Putin's tenure, authorities have opened scores of actions against independent media, and in one of the most high-profile examples, the country's last privately owned national television channel was shut down in June. But the case against Galkin is the first time a journalist has been actually sentenced to a prison term for criticizing government officials.

"What we had been warning about has happened," said Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations. "If [supporters] fail to get Galkin freed, then other governors will start jailing local journalists."

In cases that stirred international protests over the past few years, military journalist Grigory Pasko and former naval officer Alexander Nikitin have been sentenced to prison terms for allegedly revealing state secrets in their reports about the armed forces.

Galkin said in his closing statement that a sign that the charges against him were politically motivated was the fact that his indictment begins with a statement accusing him of being motivated by personal objections to the regional administration's financial policies.

He said Kosilov, the deputy governor, also sent a letter to prosecutors accusing him of engaging in "anti-Putin propaganda."

Alexei Simonov, head of the Glasnost Defense Foundation, said the trial at a Chelyabinsk district court was marred by numerous procedural violations and he doubted that the outcome was fair.

Panfilov described the provision in the Criminal Code that envisages jail terms for libel as "a Soviet-era atavism" and a "Stone Age" relict. Some European countries have similar laws, but they have not been applied for decades, Panfilov said. In the United States, only civil suits can be filed in libel cases.

Koretsky said that after the verdict was handed down, two deputy governors came out of the courthouse and warned reporters that similar charges would be filed in the future. They wanted to "make other journalists understand who is the boss," Koretsky said.

Bochkaryov and Kosilov could not be reached for comment Monday. The telephones at the office of Galkin's lawyer rang unanswered and his cellphone was turned off.