As a UK newspaper boss faces jail in Russia… A TV punch and the show trial that proves Putin will stop at nothing to silence critics of his gangster state

Daily Mail

This has been a week for nostalgia in Moscow, courtesy of that hopeless romantic President Vladimir Putin.

Yesterday, I watched tanks and missiles rumble through Red Square to mark Victory Day. Seventy years have passed since the Battle of Stalingrad.

Many feel they were the dobroye staroye vremia — the ‘good old days’. The streets around were filled with veterans including Alexander, 90, who sported a Tolstoyan beard and Soviet medal awarded for rescuing a wounded comrade while under Nazi fire.

‘We looked after each other then,’ he reminisced to me. ‘The Great Patriotic War was terrible, but the country had a better spirit.

‘Today we are not threatened by external enemies. Our real enemies are within.’ Putin could not have scripted him better, particularly with regard to another Kremlin-orchestrated echo from Russia’s totalitarian past.

At the Ostankinsky district court on Tuesday, the trial began of a man who threw a punch. Nothing more than pride was really hurt in the scuffle, which lasted mere seconds.

Indeed, the incident would barely warrant a paragraph in a local newspaper, let alone the attention of the international media, were it not for two factors.

The first is that the ‘fight’ took place during the filming of a televised debate and therefore was ‘witnessed’ by several million.

Second, but far more important, are the profound implications of this prosecution for the freedom of the Press, not only in Russia, but the wider world.

When he stood before the judge, billionaire industrialist and media tycoon Alexander Lebedev did so as one of the most high-profile critics of the Kremlin regime.

As well as owning four London-based newspapers, including The Independent and the Evening Standard, Mr Lebedev is, along with glasnost pioneer Mikhail Gorbachev, a major shareholder in the leading Russian opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

Its investigative journalism has been a thorn in the side of Mr Putin and his friends for many years, while Mr Lebedev himself has been outspoken about the corruption that flourishes in Russia today.
That is why he is not alone in believing he faces little more than a show trial, a throwback to the Soviet times, as the Putin regime continues its crackdown on opposition voices.

If the 53-year-old is found guilty of the picaresque charge of hooliganism and assault ‘motivated by political hatred’, he faces up to five years in jail.

Lebedev has variously described the case as an act of political ‘revenge’, a ‘vendetta’ or even an attempt to have him and his newspaper ‘silenced’.

Such as it is, the case against him dates back to September 16, 2011, when Mr Lebedev took part in a studio discussion on the global financial crisis. It was being filmed by the state-owned broadcaster NTV.
One of the other participants was a property oligarch called Sergei Polonsky, whom Mr Lebedev says he did not then know. Polonsky is an interesting character and perhaps not the most persuasive main prosecution witness, as we shall see.

The debate was increasingly acrimonious. It ended when Mr Lebedev stood up and lunged at Mr Polonsky, striking him at least once and knocking him off his chair.

Mr Polonsky claimed he suffered bruises and a torn pair of trousers as a result.

Afterwards, Mr Lebedev said he had been acting in self-defence. The clash was a ‘set-up’. While in the studio during filming he had endured ‘90 minutes of threats’ from Mr Polonsky. ‘I had no choice,’ he said.

Jeremy Kyle punch-ups do not attract the attention of David Cameron. But in this case, Vladimir Putin could not resist intervening. He declared the incident ‘hooliganism’. Mr Lebedev was charged in September last year.
By then the tycoon had suffered a number of other setbacks, which suggested he was not altogether popular at the Kremlin.
A secretly filmed sex tape purporting to show him with two alleged prostitutes found its way onto the internet.

A bank he owned was raided and placed under investigation with the possibility that it might be taken out of his hands. Its business had dwindled.

Mr Lebedev also claimed that the Russian secret services had bugged every aspect of his life in Russia, including his swimming pool.

‘They are hoping I will leave the country,’ he said. ‘It’s a standard procedure: first, they go against your business; then second is a smear campaign; and third is … the threat of prison.’

The headquarters of Novaya Gazeta — two floors of a shabby building in a side street in the Basmanny district — is unlike any other newspaper in Europe. For those who still believe in the importance and integrity of the Press, it has the quality of a shrine.

Above the table where the editor takes morning conference are the photographs of six people — four journalists, a lawyer and human rights activist — whose work with the paper led to their murders.
The most famous is Anna Politkovskaya, a brilliant campaigning journalist most celebrated for her investigations into the human rights violations committed during Russia’s second, Putin- orchestrated war in Chechnya.

The Kremlin did not want the world to see what was happening inside Chechnya — I was arrested trying to reach the besieged capital Grozny — but Politkovskaya shone a bright light.
For this she suffered threats, beatings, torture and a suspected poisoning before eventually, in 2006, she was shot dead in the lift of her Moscow apartment block.

Since then there have been a number of trials and retrials of her suspected murderers. It is still not clear who ordered her death.

Such is the price of investigative journalism in many parts of the world. But this was Europe.
John Dalhuisen from Amnesty International said: ‘The Russian government’s toxic habit of silencing those with dissenting or critical views has to stop.’

My guide at Novaya Gazeta was Vera Chelisheva, a young staffer. As courts correspondent she has witnessed worrying developments in her country’s recent past.

‘In Russia today we journalists have no air to breathe,’ she says.
‘I get pressured from the prosecutors when I work on cases in which (the evidence) has obviously been fabricated by the government. I get phone calls asking me not to report those proceedings.

‘Putin only understands journalism as propaganda: we should serve the interests of the state in the Soviet manner.’

Vera is also covering the prosecution of the lawyer and whistleblower Sergei Magnitsky, so absurd it could have come from the pages of Gogol.

Why? Magnitsky is dead. Yet his case and that against his London-based employer — a financier named William Browder — continues.

Magnitsky died in detention in 2009, having been beaten and denied medical treatment. He had exposed an alleged £140 million tax fraud involving officials. Instead, he was arrested.

‘It is crazy,’ says Vera. ‘There is no accused. The dock is empty and everyone knows what the verdict will be, which is guilty. The main object is to discredit him and William Browder.’
There are other examples. One of the most high-profile recent cases centred on the all-female, anti-Putin punk group Pussy Riot.

In February last year, five members of the band performed uninvited inside Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

Many found their antics distasteful, but the punitive action taken against the women drew criticism from around the world.

Three members of Pussy Riot were arrested and put in the dock on a hooliganism charge similar to that which Mr Lebedev faces. Denied bail for several months, they were convicted in August last year and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.

I visited the office of Alexey Venediktov, the charismatic, long-serving editor-in-chief of the Ekho Moskvy radio station. In the past year, Putin has twice publicly criticised its editorial content.
‘The media has become less free,’ confirmed Mr Venediktov.

‘We are seeing new measures from the government designed to reduce opportunities to gather information.
‘The first problem is the laws initiated by Putin to reduce freedom of access to the internet.
‘The excuse is to protect the public. But the real reason is the repression of the freedom of the Press and the exchange of information.
‘The second problem is that the government and the corporations that are close to Putin are buying up the independent media, particularly in the provinces.’
And the third problem?
‘Russian journalists are being killed and the police are not interested in investigating the murders.’ Such dangers prey on the mind of a lawyer named Alexei Navalny, who recently pleaded not guilty to embezzlement charges.
Once again, in ‘normal’ circumstances, a man standing trial in provincial Kirov for business-related charges would hardly merit mention outside that city, let alone Russia.
But Mr Navalny is no ordinary man. He is perhaps the most influential political blogger in Russia and uses his website to organise mass demonstrations against government corruption.
The Wall Street Journal described him as ‘the man Vladimir Putin fears most’ — yet now, if convicted, he could face up to ten years in jail. Mr Lebedev’s bank is giving assistance to Mr Navalny’s campaigns, through credit card donations.
Some see it as one of the reasons Mr Lebedev has been targeted over his TV clash with Sergei Polonsky.

What prosecutor in their right mind would want Polonsky as their star witness?
For a start, he has recently been in jail in Cambodia, where he’s been living in exile.
He faces kidnapping and assault charges related to an incident when a number of local sailors were imprisoned and made to jump into the water from a boat, allegedly at knifepoint.

Polonsky was allowed a reported $50,000 bail at the end of March following the intervention of senior Russian officials. The approaching Lebedev trial might also have been a consideration.

The mercurial 40-year-old poodle-haired former paratrooper was behind a number of grandiose residential developments in Moscow, but his firm collapsed spectacularly in the property slump.

A number of creditors had been trying to extradite him from Cambodia, where he owns a private island.
On Tuesday, Polonsky and his lawyer failed to attend the court hearing — as did a number of witnesses, whose testimony Lebedev alleges has been fabricated — which forced the judge to adjourn the case until May 20. Lebedev was then allowed to leave the country.

I caught up with him by phone just after he had arrived back in the UK and was preparing to fly to Italy for his son Evgeny’s birthday party.

He said he would be returning to Moscow to plead not guilty to the charge, which was politically motivated.

‘My position is one of precariousness because the case against me was fabricated,’ he said.
‘Normally a case like this would go no further than the magistrates’ court. But this hooliganism charge is a quite serious article in the criminal code. I am bracing myself for the worst.

‘I do not think they are joking. You ask if it is because of Putin versus Novaya Gazeta. Others might say it is — but no, you won’t hear that from me, for purely tactical reasons.’
He argued: ‘What is at stake is huge. We are probably the last remaining independent paper in the country and its fate hangs in the balance.

‘If I get a year in prison then OK, you have to be ready for things like that in today’s Russia. But no one else is supporting Novaya Gazeta financially.

‘I am funding it openly from my account at the bank so if I am in a penitentiary it will be difficult for me to continue supporting the paper.

‘I give it $3million to $4 million a year. Its revenue covers less than half of the costs of production. Advertisers won’t touch it because of the regime.’

Why should the wider world worry about what happens to Mr Navalny or, indeed, Mr Lebedev?
Because perhaps the world has grown small and the diminishing of freedoms in one country can, even by example, have a corrosive effect on those in others.

Even as Mr Lebedev defends himself against a regime in Moscow that seeks to suppress such freedoms, those in his second home remain under threat. Lord Justice Leveson’s report last November saw to that.
His inquiry was set up following the phone-hacking scandal that has seen dozens of journalists arrested and several charged.

The criminal law is being enforced, and with great, if not excessive, zeal. Yet the Left-of-centre lobby group Hacked Off pressed for further, specific controls on the Press. And the Government caved in. In March, David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg unveiled a ‘cross-party agreement’ on Press regulation.
After late-night talks attended by Hacked Off, they published a Royal Charter, which would be backed by statute and allow politicians to interfere in Press freedom for the first time in 300 years.
It is being vigorously resisted by the newspaper industry.

Journalists from around the globe have protested to David Cameron that the proposals he supports would lend succour to tyrants who habitually crush or intimidate media opposition.
If the state could intervene in the UK, then why not in any other dark corner where human rights come second to the hegemony of the ruling elite?

Such as Russia, for example. Mr Lebedev recognises this.

He said to me: ‘Regarding freedom of speech in the UK, lessons must be learned from the phone-hacking scandal, but it is of paramount importance to preserve that freedom.

‘I would leave it within the journalistic community and media to decide. Self-regulation is the way forward. There should be self-regulation rather than give it to the government.

‘The freedom of the Press is one of the great achievements of Britain. (Statutory regulation in the UK) is not a good sign to the Russian Federation, where the state is over-powerful and its boots rest on what little of our freedoms remain.’

Mr Venediktov at Ekho radio agreed. ‘Britain is one of the places where democracy emerged and is an example to us.

‘Now the new regulation (in the UK) will be used as
a political example by Putin. He will say: “Look the UK is doing the same as me. Why are you complaining?” ’

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