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Journalist Sentenced to 5 Years in Prison

A local court in Smolensk has sentenced a journalist to more than five years in prison after he was convicted of defaming three regional officials by accusing them of masterminding the killing of his boss five years ago.

Judge Irina Malinovskaya of the Smolensk magistrates court on June 6 sentenced Nikolai Goshko to five years and one month in prison for accusing regional officials on the air of organizing the killing of Sergei Novikov, head of the independent Smolensk station Radio Vesna.

Novikov was shot in the stairwell of his apartment building on July 26, 2000, by an unidentified assailant. A day later, Goshko put the blame on Alexander Prokhorov, at the time governor of the Smolensk region; his deputy governor, Yury Balbyshkin; and former regional prosecutor Viktor Zabolotsky, all of whom subsequently pressed defamation charges against Goshko.

The day he was killed, Novikov had announced on a regional television program that he had evidence of corruption on the part of Balbyshkin.

Since Novikov's killing, both Balbyshkin and Prokhorov have been convicted of corruption.

Whatever the merits of the defamation case, Goshko's unusually harsh sentence has drawn fire from media watchdog organizations, which say they see evidence of a politically motivated crackdown on press freedom.

Defamation involving accusations of violent crimes is punishable by a maximum of three years in prison, but Goshko was convicted on fraud charges in 1996 and received a one-year suspended sentence and a five-year probation period. Because he was charged with defamation before his probation had ended, Malinovskaya sentenced Goshko to 61 months in prison, a spokesman for the Smolensk regional prosecutor's office told Interfax.

The 1996 fraud charges were business-related, says Goshko's wife, Yekaterina Chalova.

She said Novikov had warned her husband shortly before his death that journalists from the radio station might become targets of politically motivated killings because of their criticism of the local government.

"How can this be defamation if he was simply telling listeners what Novikov had told him a few days before his death," Chalova, spokeswoman for the administration in the Moscow region town of Odintsovo, said in a telephone interview Friday. "This is simply mayhem. When the guards led him out of the courtroom, they told him 'This is the first time we've ever seen anyone leave the magistrates court in handcuffs.'"

Goshko was being held in a detention center in the Smolensk region and planned to appeal, Chalova said. Since early 2004, he has been the deputy editor of Odintsovskaya Nedelya, a newspaper in Odintsovo.

Calls to the magistrates court went unanswered Friday. A woman who answered the phone at the Leninsky District Court in the city of Smolensk said the lower court was in the process of moving and had not yet installed telephones in its new building. She said no one could comment on the case at the Leninsky District Court, which would handle the appeal.

The Smolensk regional prosecutor's office could not be reached for comment Friday, but a spokesman for the office told Interfax on Thursday that prosecutors had asked that Goshko receive a one-year suspended sentence.

Oleg Panfilov, head of the Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations, called the harsh sentence a sign of the increasing influence of bureaucrats.

"Whatever prosecutors requested had little to do with it," Panfilov said. "This was a case of an official calling the judge and dictating the sentence."

The Glasnost Defense Foundation, a media watchdog, has sent a letter to Sergei Shurygin, head of the Leninsky District Court, asking for a clarification of the harsh sentence.

"The sentence looks rather strange, considering the nature of the two different cases and articles in the Russian Criminal Code," the foundation said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Moscow Times.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists was less reserved in a statement posted on its web site Wednesday. "We're outraged that Nikolai Goshko is in jail while those who murdered Sergei Novikov are free," CPJ executive director Ann Cooper said in the statement. "We believe that the court should overturn Goshko's conviction, parliament should repeal Russia's antiquated criminal defamation law, and authorities should prosecute Sergei Novikov's killers."

In an interview with the Smolensk newspaper Nikolskoye Koltso, Prokhorov said he had expected the decision, reported Friday.

"I was insulted on several occasions in unflattering and improper statements," quoted Prokhorov as saying. "I was accused of involvement in Novikov's death, even though I had only seen him once or twice. ... I would hope that Kolya's sentence will not scare journalists in those cases in which they are confident in their hearts and their souls, so that this trial will not hang over them like the sword of Damocles."

In September, Prokhorov was convicted by the Leninsky District Court of abuse of power in connection with a road construction project. He was sentenced to three years in prison but was promptly amnestied. The criminal case had been opened on May 18, 2000.

In October 2001, Balbyshkin was convicted of abuse of power and tax evasion, receiving a two-year suspended sentence.

Shortly after Novikov was killed, Balbyshkin told reporters that the murder was likely connected to the journalist's business dealings.

(The Moscow Times

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