‘The investigation is very afraid’ Russian investigators banned jailed journalist Ivan Safronov from sending and receiving letters. For Meduza, his lawyer explains why.

Former journalist Ivan Safronov in court. July 2020.Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Since his arrest on treason charges in July 2020, Ivan Safronov — a former journalist and advisor to the head of Russia’s space agency — has been in custody in Moscow’s Lefortovo remand prison. This entire time, he hasn’t been allowed a single visit from family members or even a phone call. In July, Safronov told his lawyers that he was offered a phone call with his mother in exchange for a confession — this proposal was put forward by Alexander Chaban, the FSB investigator leading Safronov’s case. Safronov refused and, as a result, has only been able to communicate with his family through letters and, sometimes, at court hearings (though these proceedings take place behind closed doors, relatives are usually allowed to enter the courtroom for a few minutes during recesses). Last Friday, October 15, BBC News Russian reported that on orders from investigator Chaban, Safronov had been stripped of his right to send and receive correspondence. For Meduza, Safronov’s lawyer Evgeny Smirnov explains the logic and the legality of this decision.

Evgeny Smirnov

Ivan Safronov’s lawyer

A month ago — or maybe more — Ivan stopped receiving letters. He waited about a week and then asked the administration of the remand prison what was going on. They explained to him that a letter came from investigator [Alexander] Chaban, which said that he [Ivan] was completely banned from contact with the outside world. Neither Ivan nor his lawyers saw this document. But there’s no reason not to trust the prison administration on this matter.

The justification for this ban remains unknown. The law establishes the unconditional right of a defendant in pre-trial detention to correspond with anyone [they want], with no limit on the number of letters. The right to ban defendants from all correspondence isn’t provided for in any law. At the same time, the law provides for handling each letter individually. Each letter must be checked by the censor. After that, a decision is made on whether or not to hand over this letter to the defendant. Letters that could somehow be used to influence the investigation or put pressure on a witness are banned. As are letters with secret writing, that is, encrypted letters, which cannot be reviewed by the censor. 

In the case of Ivan it’s complete nonsense. He’s banned from any and all correspondence, regardless of the addressees. He writes a letter, hands it over to the prison administration, and then they bring him a notice saying that his letter was seized. We tried to get Ivan to write letters to his lawyers, but none of them arrived either. Nor did our letters to him. At the same time, the law doesn’t allow any censorship of communications with lawyers. Firstly, we visit him in pre-trial detention and can discuss all the details of the case. Secondly, the point of having a lawyer is to discuss these details.

For a year and a half Ivan has been banned from making phone calls, including to his relatives. He’s banned from visits. And now he’s also banned from all letters. Now he can’t communicate with his family members, with whom he’s very close. He only finds out about what’s happening with them during meetings with his lawyers.

Ivan Safronov (center) and FSB investigator Alexander Chaban (left) after a hearing at Moscow’s Lefortovo District Court on September 2, 2020.Ivan Safronov (center) and FSB investigator Alexander Chaban (left) after a hearing at Moscow’s Lefortovo District Court on September 2, 2020.Igor Ivanko / Kommersant

Similar situations have occurred with many defendants in treason and espionage cases. People don’t receive letters for several months at a time. But I can’t remember a case where this was official and the remand prison had some kind of documentation. I think the FSB officers handling the case took this approach because the investigative actions are drawing to a close — at this stage, the investigation has to show us [the lawyers] all of the case materials. This has happened near the end of the investigation in other high-profile treason cases. Investigators want to minimize the media coverage of these cases. I think Ivan’s case is no exception, but, for the first time, we managed to get confirmation that correspondence is being blocked at the request of the investigation. 

Ivan’s is a special case and journalists write a lot about it. And any details about his life — even mundane ones — that he can communicate to his family could be very shocking to an uninformed reader. Take for example the conditions that people live in in, shall we say, an elite detention center in downtown Moscow. So, the investigation is very afraid. They’re primarily afraid the investigation will somehow be compromised, disgraced. And apparently they see censorship as the only way to combat this. 

I would urge everyone to write to Ivan. Because the barrier that the investigation put up will be broken through sooner or later. And the more letters there are the sooner this will happen. When a letter arrives, they bring Ivan a paper that says that it was received, but it was confiscated. And this, of course, gives him support. Though he doesn’t see the text of the letter, he at least knows that people are writing to him. 

By the way, the confiscated letters go to investigator Chaban. Anyone who wants to write him a message can do so in letters to Ivan.

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

I’m with you, Meduza

Interview by Kristina Safonova

Abridged translation by Eilish Hart

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