Russia Arrests Space Agency Official, Accusing Him of Treason


MOSCOW — Russia’s secret police on Tuesday arrested a respected former reporter who worked in recent months as an adviser to the head of the country’s space agency, accusing him of treason for passing secrets to a NATO country.

Life News, a tabloid news site with close ties to the security apparatus, posted a video of the former reporter, Ivan I. Safronov, being bundled off a leafy Moscow street into a gray van by plainclothes officers of the Federal Security Service, or F.S.B., the domestic arm of what was known in Soviet times as the K.G.B.

The F.S.B. said that Mr. Safronov was suspected of working for the intelligence service of an unspecified NATO country, passing on “classified information about military-technical cooperation, defense and the security of the Russian Federation.”

What information that could be, however, was unclear. Mr. Safronov only started working at the space agency, Roscosmos, in May. Before that, he worked for more than a decade as a well-regarded journalist for Kommersant and then Vedomosti, both privately owned business newspapers with no obvious access to state secrets.

Outraged at what was widely viewed as another example of overreach by Russia’s sprawling and often paranoid security apparatus, journalists and ordinary Muscovites gathered in small groups outside the headquarters of the F.S.B. to protest the arrest. Several were detained for holding up signs in support of Mr. Safronov.

Andrei A. Soldatov, an investigative reporter who has written extensively about Russia’s security services, said Mr. Safronov’s arrest on suspicion of treason marked “an absolutely new level of repression against journalism.” While journalists have often been accused of crimes, he said, accusations of treason had been “inconceivable.”

Even journalists known for their zealous loyalty to the authorities expressed unease. Margarita Simonyan, the chief editor of Kremlin-funded television network RT, tweeted that “it would be good to get an explanation of what exactly Safronov is accused of — journalist work for foreigners or direct work for foreign special services. There is a huge difference.”

With hundreds of journalists working abroad for RT, Ms. Simonyan clearly worries that Mr. Safronov’s troubles could be used by foreign governments as an excuse to justify detaining her own employees, who have often been accused of peddling propaganda for the Kremlin.

Russian journalists who take on the authorities are frequently harassed, detained, framed and even killed. In a rare reversal, the government in June last year dropped a case against Ivan Golunov, an investigative reporter arrested on bogus narcotics charges. The evidence against him was widely believed to have been manufactured by the police on orders from the F.S.B. to punish Mr. Golunov for reporting work that upset the financial interests of security officers. The authorities ultimately acknowledged that the evidence had been fabricated.

On Monday, a court in western Russia convicted another journalist, Svetlana Prokopyeva, of terrorism-related charges that even the Kremlin’s own human rights council had described as unwarranted.

In a statement on Tuesday, the newspaper where Mr. Safronov had worked, Kommersant, described its former journalist as a “true patriot of Russia” and scorned claims of treason as “absurd.” It said that Mr. Safronov had joined the newspaper to take a job covering defense issues that was previously held by his father, also named Ivan, who died in March 2007 after falling from the fifth floor of a Moscow apartment building.

Prosecutors at the time described the fall as a suicide, but colleagues scorned this explanation and suspected possible foul play. The older Mr. Safronov died after publishing a series of scoops that had infuriated the Russian military.

Roscosmos confirmed on Tuesday that Mr. Safronov had been arrested on suspicion of treason but said that the detention did not relate to his work at the agency. At the same time, the Kremlin said that the arrest had nothing to do with his previous work as a journalist, which included coverage of President Vladimir V. Putin.

Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said he did not know how Mr. Safronov could have obtained classified information whose disclosure would qualify as treason, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Trials involving state secrets are generally closed to the public, making it impossible for anyone outside the system to know whether there is any real evidence.

A former American marine, Paul N. Whelan, received a 16-year jail sentence for espionage last month after a closed trial that the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John J. Sullivan, denounced as a “mockery of justice.”

The arrest on Tuesday of Mr. Safronov prompted dismay and anger among journalists, including those who have mostly avoided open confrontation with the authorities. Elena Chernenko, a foreign affairs journalist at Kommersant, Mr. Safronov’s former newspaper, staged a one-person picket, the only form of protest permitted without prior approval, outside the headquarters of the F.S.B., holding up a sign demanding “information and justice in connection with Ivan Safronov.” Police officers took her away.

Even Mr. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, seemed surprised by the arrest of a journalist who had once worked in the Kremlin pool and whom he had previously described as highly talented.

“Ivan will have a chance to defend himself,” Mr. Peskov told journalists on Tuesday.

Sophia Kishkovsky contributed reporting from Moscow.

Source : Nytimes