‘Confess and you can call your mom’ A year later, the details of Russia’s treason charges against journalist Ivan Safronov remain largely unknown

Sergey Fadeichev / TASS / Vida Press

A year ago today, on July 7, 2020, agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service arrested 30-year-old Ivan Safronov on charges of treason — punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Then serving as an advisor to the head of Russia’s space agency, Safronov worked for many years prior as a journalist at the newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti. Meduza reviews the developments in the case over the past 12 months and looks at how Safronov and his defense team have weathered a year of uncertainty.

According to the FSB, Safronov collaborated with Czech intelligence back in 2012 when he was still a reporter for Kommersant, working together with the United States. In 2017, he allegedly transmitted classified data about Moscow’s “military-technical cooperation with a Middle Eastern African country.” Safronov’s defense attorney, “Team 29” human rights lawyer Ivan Pavlov, says the FSB believes his client used his home computer and the open-source encryption software “VeraCrypt” to send the intelligence abroad. 

Safronov’s case itself is classified, and the FSB has declined to disclose what secret intelligence he supposedly shared with foreign spies. A year later, both Safronov and his lawyers remain in the dark. In September 2020, he filed a formal request, asking the Federal Security Service to explain what information he sent abroad, but Alexander Chaban, the FSB investigator leading the case, refused.

So what do we know about the charges against Safronov?

Federal investigators say a “career officer” in Czech intelligence supposedly recruited Safronov. Journalists believe this person could be a friend of fellow reporter Martin Larysh, though Larysh denies these claims. In March 2021, a secret witness identified as “Lander” appeared in the case materials against Safronov.

Both the FSB and the Kremlin have stated repeatedly that the charges against Safronov do not concern his work as a journalist (he spent nine years at Kommersant, reporting on Russia’s military and space agency, and then a year at Vedomosti’s investigative desk). President Putin has said twice publicly that Safronov’s supposed crimes occurred during the month and a half he worked at Roscosmos. Russia’s space agency, however, insists that Ivan Safronov never had access to classified information and worked only in the publicity department. Dmitry Rogozin, the agency’s director, has even endorsed his former aide’s “personal decency and professionalism.”

Safronov maintains his innocence and says the FSB’s charges are retaliation for his work as a journalist. Acknowledging that officials formally opened the case on July 6, 2020, but noting that his client’s file soon contained seven volumes, Ivan Pavlov accuses the authorities of starting their investigation when Safronov was still a reporter. (Officials usually need years to collect so much case evidence, argues Pavlov.)

Additionally, the charges against Safronov mention two messages from foreign intelligence agencies in September 2019 and March 2020 (before he began working at Roscosmos). The case evidence also includes expert claims that Safronov transmitted classified information in September 2019 and May 2020 (when he’d only just started at Roscosmos). According to Kommersant, moreover, both the FSB and the Foreign Intelligence Service were secretly monitoring Safronov’s phone calls and written correspondence. 

Pavlov says federal agents also offered his client a plea bargain in exchange for the names of his sources as a journalist.

How has the investigation progressed?

Since his arrest, one year ago, Ivan Safronov has mostly just waited in a cell at Moscow’s Lefortovo remand prison. 

Evgeny Smirnov, another Team 29 attorney working with Safronov, says his client meets with federal investigators roughly once a month (there have been 10 such meetings in the past year) for formal exchanges of the latest expertise and case documents. “They carry out the investigative actions required by law,” explains Smirnov. Each time, officials say their investigation is almost finished. 

In March 2021, the FSB promoted Alexander Chaban, the officer leading Safronov’s case, to the rank of colonel and major crimes senior investigator. 

According to Smirnov, little new information has appeared in the case over the past year, judging by the materials shared with defense attorneys. “There are still no specifics [about the charges], they won’t tell us how Ivan could have obtained this information; they won’t say what this information is; and they won’t say which foreign intelligence agency got it,” says Smirnov. “All they tell us is that he divulged some kind of secret information to his old journalist friend.”

Chaban recently informed Safronov’s proxy that the FSB’s case evidence now comprises 20 volumes of documents. Defense lawyers say they expect officials to delay the end of their investigation until early December when Safronov’s pretrial detention period expires. Attorneys will need several months to study the evidence, says Evgeny Smirnov, and they can only do this at the investigators’ office under special restrictions pertaining to state secrets. The court has already extended Safronov’s arrest four times (most recently until October 6, 2021, after Chaban told a judge that foreign spies would help him flee Russia if he’s freed from remand prison). 

What have Safronov’s attorneys been doing?

In order to be able to discuss the case publicly, all five of Safronov’s defense lawyers declined to sign nondisclosure agreements with the FSB’s investigators. Though attorneys are under no obligation to accept these agreements, lawyers from three separate divisions of Russia’s Justice Ministry subsequently petitioned the Moscow Bar Association to initiate disciplinary proceedings against Safronov’s legal team. Additionally, as soon as the lawyers joined the case, the FSB placed them under field surveillance. 

On April 30, 2021, federal agents detained Ivan Pavlov on charges of disclosing preliminary investigative findings in Safronov’s case after the lawyer gave reporters at Vedomosti a copy of the indictment against his client and informed the newspaper about the secret witness in the case.

According to Evgeny Smirnov, FSB officers (particularly Alexander Chaban) often threaten Pavlov, who says Chaban has urged Team 29’s other clients and their relatives to find new legal representation. Even when granted access to Safronov’s case materials, defense lawyers have faced what Smirnov calls “diabolical restrictions” on their work, like a ban on any written notes (ostensibly to protect state secrets). To make matters worse, officials also refuse to say which documents contain classified information. As a result, Safronov’s attorneys have to memorize any important evidence. 

In the past few months, Smirnov says, Chaban has even started disassembling the lawyers’ pens in search of hidden recording devices. “Previously [in such cases], we had no problem copying non-classified documents and taking notes without disclosing state secrets. And there were at least some documents that we could take home,” says Smirnov. “About five years ago, they started gradually cutting back on these rights: First they banned us from bringing cameras to the investigations department, then they banned us from making copies, and then they banned us from taking notes. And now it’s gotten to the point that they’re taking apart our pens. It’s only a matter of time before they’re strip-searching us — that’s the next step.”

How has Safronov himself been holding up?

In the past year, at least six other inmates have passed through Safronov’s two-bunk cell. According to Evgeny Smirnov, officials usually send him prisoners who have either accepted plea bargains or confessed to their charges. “Some of the men tell [Ivan] how much easier life became after they decided to cooperate,” says Smirnov. 

At Lefortovo prison, Safronov has endured extreme isolation. The facility has just six rooms for visits with outsiders, and inmates must share this space with investigators who always enjoy priority access. With roughly 200 inmates in total, defense attorneys are forced to draw lots to determine who gets meeting space and when. “We get to see [Ivan] about once every three weeks — sometimes less often,” Smirnov told Meduza, explaining that officials want Safronov to feel alone and forgotten. “They want to isolate him as much as possible and reduce all his communications to conversations with FSB officers who wear him down psychologically.”

Ivan Safronov and his partner Ksenia Mironova in court on March 18, 2021Ivan Safronov and his partner Ksenia Mironova in court on March 18, 2021Moscow City Court Press Service / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

Smirnov believes that support from friends and family — especially the letters that initially poured in — have helped Safronov manage his time while locked away. “At one point, he couldn’t even respond to people because his fingers blistered and it hurt to write. He sees that he’s not alone,” says Smirnov. “He’s let us read some of the letters and they are intense. They help us, his lawyers, too. This case hasn’t been easy for us, either, after all.”

Since his arrest, Safronov has not been allowed a single meeting or phone call with his family. He told his lawyers that an investigator once offered to let him phone his mother in exchange for a confession. Safronov refused and the FSB has continued to deny him any communications with his parents, claiming that he could use the contact to leak more intelligence, aid Russia’s enemies, or undermine the case against him. 

“It seems important to me in this story that Ivan is being persecuted not for some questionable activity but for performing ordinary journalism,” Evgeny Smirnov told Meduza. “He’s being prosecuted for discussing current events in Russia with a foreign colleague. It’s vital that all journalists understand the realities they face right now in this line of work. What happened to Ivan could happen to any of them.”

“Ivan Safronov remains a journalist, even behind bars,” his lawyer Ivan Pavlov wrote on July 1, revealing that his client is working on a new investigative report from inside his prison cell. “His sources now are limited to investigators, lawyers, fellow inmates, and the officials who drive him to hearings. Ivan has been moved between cells and a variety of inmates, and he’s managed to collect a lot of information.” Pavlov says he hopes the new work will be published soon. Much like the evidence in his treason case, the details of Safronov’s investigation are anybody’s guess.

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Story by Kristina Safonova

Translation by Kevin Rothrock


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