A former investigative reporter for Russia's independent RBC media group was found guilty and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison on Thursday on charges of organizing an extremist group and attempting to overthrow the government.
Authorities said Alexander Sokolov, 29, was the mastermind behind the group "For Responsible Government,” or FRG, a Moscow-based organization alleged to be a cover for banned extremist group “People’s Will Army,” which was created by Sokolov associate Yuri Mukhin.
Moscow judge Alexey Krivoruchko sentenced Mukhin, a newspaper editor, to a four-year suspended term, while two other activists - Valery Parfenov and Kirill Barabash - both received four-year sentences. All deny the charges.
Sokolov said his trial and sentencing are persecution for his investigative reporting. The human rights group Memorial called Sokolov “a political prisoner,” and media rights group Reporters Without Borders testified on his behalf.
During the proceedings, independent Russian channel TV Rain recorded video of Sokolov making brief remarks before the press was ordered to leave.
“The idea of a referendum in Russia has been equated with ‘extremism,’” said Sokolov on camera, wearing a white T-shirt with the same message printed on the front. “It is a crime, as you see, to want a referendum in Russia....” Sokolov’s speech was interrupted by a guard shouting, “Press, this is it, you’re leaving! Press, out!”
Sokolov was arrested July 29, 2015, weeks after RBC published a report he wrote on the alleged embezzlement of $1.55 billion from a project initiated by President Vladimir Putin - construction of a new space launch site in Russia's Far East. Additionally, Mukhin, Parfenov and Barabash were taken into custody the same day. Prosecutors alleged that as members of FRG, the four were advocating for a referendum on government in Russia.
The article that Sokolov wrote was passed to the Auditing Chamber of the Russian Federation, which in December 2015 confirmed his findings and issued a statement about “financial irregularities” during the construction project.
Sokolov had been monitored by the Russian authorities since 2014, when police investigator Natalia Talaeva opened the criminal probe into Sokolov and his associates. Court records dealing with Sokolov's arrest said Talaeva considered his work at the FRG, including publications calling for the referendum in Russia, to be incriminating evidence against him. Talaeva added that the real goal of Sokolov's group was the “dismantlement of Russian statehood” and “an illegal transition of power” through a referendum.
The same year, Sokolov was finishing his thesis on government losses from corruption, looking at government companies Rosnano, Rostech, Olympstroi, and Rosatom. Police, suspecting him of extremist activity, searched his home at 5:00 one morning and confiscated all data storage devices, accusing him of plotting a regime change.
In an interview with Russia’s independent media outlet Novaya Gazeta after the search, Sokolov said, “I am not afraid because the truth is on my side. This will be more proof that the government is scared of responsibility before the people. I am not even considering moving away or leaving and hiding somewhere. I have absolutely nothing to hide. It’s they who are potentially going to compensate me for the damages…”
Sokolov and the other defendants have already spent two years in jail and plan to appeal their sentences.