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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Journalist Jailed Over Unpublished Article

For MTVyacheslav Volodin
A journalist has been sentenced to seven months in prison on charges of slandering a Saratov official in an article that was never published.

Eduard Abrosimov, a onetime adviser to former Saratov Governor Dmitry Ayatskov, was also found guilty of slandering State Duma Deputy Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, a deputy chairman of the United Russia party, in a separate article, a spokeswoman for the Saratov region prosecutor's office said Thursday.

The charge over the unpublished article was filed during an investigation into the Volodin slander case, and astounded media rights activists denounced the conviction as a leap back to the Middle Ages.

The case stemmed from an article that speculated about which politicians might be homosexual and, citing Internet rumors, mentioned Volodin's name. The article, which was written under the pseudonym Andrei Zabelin, was published in the Sobesednik newspaper in November.

Abrosimov was charged with slandering Volodin and was arrested on Jan. 21.

A search of Abrosimov's computer turned up an article that he had sent twice to the editor of the Saratov-SP newspaper, which contained "false statements" accusing Dmitry Petryaikin, head of the special investigations department of the regional prosecutor's office, of accepting a $2,000 bribe to drop a criminal case against two suspects, the regional prosecutor's office said in a statement.

Abrosimov was charged on April 15 with defamation involving accusations of serious crimes, according to the prosecutor's office statement.

However, it was an early version of the article that investigators found, and the final version published in November made no mention of the accusation against Petryaikin, said Sergei Plotnikov, an expert with the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, who went to Saratov last week to follow the case.

The regional prosecutor's office spokeswoman, who refused to give her name, would not provide details about the case and referred all questions to the office's official statement, which was posted on its web site.

Plotnikov said prosecutors argued in court that even though the accusation was not published, the fact that at least one person -- in this case, Abrosimov's editor -- had seen it qualified as slander.

"This is an amazing precedent. It means that any journalist can be convicted for words deleted by his editor," Plotnikov said. "You can't even compare this to the 1930s. It's more like the Middle Ages."

Abrosimov's lawyer, Igor Makarevich, could not be reached for comment, and repeated calls to Volodin's press office went unanswered.

Abrosimov was sentenced Wednesday to seven months in a minimum-security prison by a Saratov district court.

Abrosimov is perhaps better known for his political connections than his journalistic pluck. At the time the articles in question were written, he was advising then-Saratov Governor Ayatskov. The article mentioning Volodin was sent from a computer at Abrosimov's office in a building of the regional administration, a senior Saratov prosecutor told Kommersant in January.

Ayatskov was the first governor to lose his job under a law introduced this year that replaced gubernatorial elections with a system where the president effectively hires and fires governors. After being removed in March, Ayatskov was appointed ambassador to Belarus.

Abrosimov had a reputation for writing articles -- using his own name or pseudonyms -- that were critical of Ayatskov's political opponents, including Volodin and Saratov Prosecutor Anatoly Bondar, media reported.

"Local journalists consider him more of a PR guy than a journalist," Plotnikov said.

Kommersant, citing local prosecutors, reported in January that a search of Abrosimov's office turned up evidence indicating that Abrosimov had made a $600,000 deal to organize a smear campaign against Volodin.

Ayatskov has defended Abrosimov, telling Kommersant in January: "Abrosimov is absolutely clean. Not even the prosecutors can argue about that with their hints and speculations. ... They're trying to portray this as a case against my adviser, but as an adviser, I have nothing against him. In his free time, by all means, he can be a journalist."

Human rights lawyer Lev Levinson said the defamation law in the Criminal Code allowed for a person to be convicted of spreading false information about someone else, even if to only a small group of people.

"If it's not just a private conversation with my family or my close friends but rather with, for example, my work colleagues, then technically the law defines this as defamation," Levinson said.

He said, however, that he was stunned that Abrosimov had received a prison sentence.

"The law stipulates several punishments, including financial compensation," Levinson said. "At the most he should have gotten a suspended sentence. It's almost unthinkable that he will be serving actual prison time for this."

 The OSCE expressed concern on Thursday over a five-year prison sentence handed down by a Smolensk court to journalist Nikolai Goshko.

"It would be alarming to see both the severity of the sentence, and the possibility of combining speech offenses with crimes totally unrelated to journalism, become a precedent for the future and thus amplify the chilling effect on journalism," Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE's media freedom representative, wrote in a letter to the Justice Ministry, according to the OSCE's web site.

Goshko, deputy editor of Odintsovskaya Nedelya, a newspaper in the Moscow region city of Odintsovo, was sentenced this month to five years and one month in prison on charges of slandering three Smolensk officials in 2000. The unusually harsh sentence was due to the fact that Goshko was on probation at the time of his offense for unrelated fraud charges from 1996, Smolensk prosecutors said last week.

Goshko's wife, Yekaterina Shalova, said Thursday that her husband would file an appeal Monday.