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.
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.
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.
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