Jailed Journalist Safronov Decries Russia’s ‘Spy-Making’ System

MOSCOW — Jailed former Russian journalist Ivan Safronov, who is charged with high treason, has slammed state authorities, including the judiciary, for their treatment of suspects and methods used in investigating espionage amid a wave of cases aimed at muzzling dissent.

Safronov, a former adviser to the head of Russia’s space agency Roskosmos and one-time journalist who has been charged with leaking classified data, published an article in the Vedemosti newspaper on July 23 outlining how investigators deprive individuals arrested and charged with high treason and espionage of any opportunity to defend themselves.

After several hours online, the article became inaccessible. The Meduza news website also reported an outage of its site after carrying excerpts of the article.

In the article, Safronov says cases are being fabricated in Russia against ordinary people because catching real spies is much harder.

He says charges are laid against someone as a method of intimidation instead of being based on facts.

State-appointed lawyers who rarely defend their clients are then brought in to do everything to persuade the accused to plead guilty and make deals with investigators, while courts exacerbate the situation by sending “scared and confused” suspects to detention centers.

“Catching a professional agent takes a lot of work, so catching them is a great rarity requiring extra luck. You can’t count on it…it is easier to take your own people to make others afraid,” he wrote in the piece.

“I have made my choice, by the way — no deals,” the 31-year-old, who once covered the defense industry for the newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti, added.

Safronov was arrested on July 7, 2020, on allegations that he had passed secret information to the Czech Republic in 2017 about Russian arms sales in the Middle East.

Safronov, who at the time of his arrest had moved on from journalism to his advisory post with Roskosnos, has rejected the accusations against him and many of his supporters have held pickets demanding his release.

His defense team says that investigators never revealed when and to whom Safronov had allegedly passed the classified information or what it contained. All case materials have been deemed classified as part of the cover-up, they say.

One of Safronov’s defenders, lawyer Ivan Pavlov, himself has since become a suspect in a separate criminal case on the disclosure of data with regard to his client’s case.

Russian authorities have launched a massive crackdown on dissent in recent months, jailing dozens of opposition members, activists, and regular citizens under the guise of charges widely considered to be falsified.

Treason charges against Russian men and women, especially researchers and scientists, have become common as a way of sending a message through the academic community, critics of the government and rights activists say.

Safronov said in his article that the launch of a probe is just the beginning of the ordeal. Suspects are then pressured to testify against others in exchange for favors ranging from a pre-trial deal to phone calls to relatives or friends.

“It doesn’t matter, who you are — an official, housewife, salesperson, journalist, or a scholar. Anyone who in any way had contact with a foreigner, any foreigner, will fit the bill,” Safronov wrote.

“The isolation from the outer world breaks a person, completely ruins their psychological health. Uncertainty and the inability to comprehend the situation scare them. Left alone along with their thoughts, the person starts believing anything, including the notion that they may actually be a spy, a traitor,” he added.

Human rights organizations have issued statements demanding Safronov’s release and expressing concerns over an intensifying crackdown on dissent in Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on July 23 that the Kremlin is aware of Safronov’s article, adding that there will be no official comment on the letter.

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