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Respekt in English

A Cipher Named Safronov

A Russian journalist remains in custody, charged with spying for the Czechs. His Czech colleague and accused recruiter remains silent

Důkazy stále chybí. (Ivan Safronov) • Autor: Lefortovsky District Court/TASS
Důkazy stále chybí. (Ivan Safronov) • Autor: Lefortovsky District Court/TASS

The case of the arrested Russian journalist Ivan Safronov still remains a secret of Russian criminology. He was arrested eight months ago and taken into custody with the brief explanation that he was suspected of having committed treason on behalf of the Czech Republic by collaborating with the secret service of that country, according to Russian counter-intelligence.

Safronov, who rejects the accusation as absolutely absurd, has learned nothing more about his alleged crime since then: Detectives do not want to tell either him or his attorneys exactly what he is alleged to have done or what evidence they have against him. Last week Safronov asked the Moscow municipal court to release him from custody, but his request was denied.

“Pre-trial custody of the kind my client is in can last as long as 17 months. Russian laws make it possible to provide no further information to the defense about the case. Evidence does not have to be submitted until trial,” Ivan Pavlov, Safronov’s attorney, told Respekt.

The counterintelligence service in Russia, the FSB, asserts that Safronov collaborated with the Czech intelligence agency UZSI (Office for Foreign Relations and Information). The man who is alleged to have recruited him for the job in Russia in 2012 – as several Russian media outlets reported some time ago, referencing anonymous sources – is his Czech friend and fellow journalist Martin Larys, who at the time was working as a correspondent for the Czech newspaper Lidove noviny in Moscow. Safronov was 21 years old at the time, Larys was five years his senior.

“This is absolute garbage,” Larys told the BBC Russian service last July about Safronov’s arrest and his alleged role in it. “I still don’t understand why he was arrested,” he said briefly at the time, and has not commented on the matter since, not even when the attorneys for his former acquaintance asked him to do so. “I do not intend to comment further on that matter,” he wrote briefly in response to a question from Respekt asking whether he could further clarify what his contacts with Safronov had been, whether he could respond to the allegations by the Russian police about his engagement as a recruiter, or whether he can explain why he is refusing to comment on the case. Currently Larys is working as a private security consultant.

At the time of his arrest, Safronov had been working as an adviser to Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos. The independent Russian media have speculated that he may have been caught up in an opaque power struggle between parts of the Russian security forces and Rogozin, with the aim of weakening Rogozin’s position by arresting his adviser and replacing him with somebody else for a while. Rogozin remains in his position for the time being.

Since his arrest, Safronov has been in Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, in solitary confinement. He is not allowed to speak with his mother, and his attorneys have limited access to him once every few weeks. “There is only one purpose to my spending time in pre-trial detention – it’s psychological pressure designed to break me and force me to confess,” Safronov recently commented from prison, through his attorneys, for the Kommersant newspaper, where he used to work.

The Russian media often report on the case in critical terms, pointing out, as stated above, that the prosecution has not yet submitted evidence against Safronov. In the West, including in the Czech Republic, articles about his case are appearing sporadically, mostly in the form of brief reports [some Western reports describe Safronov as a “former journalist” – Transitions note], and representatives of the Czech security community say they themselves are still groping for an explanation as to why Safronov has been accused of espionage.

Translated by Gwendolyn Albert. Vychází ve spolupráci s TransitionsOnline

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