MOSCOW (AP) — A former journalist who worked as an adviser to the director of Russia's state space corporation was arrested and jailed Tuesday on charges of passing military secrets to Czech intelligence, accusations that many of his colleagues dismissed as absurd.
Ivan Safronov, who had written about military and security issues for a decade before becoming an adviser to Roscosmos head Dmitry Rogozin, was detained outside his apartment in Moscow by agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the main KGB successor agency.
He could be heard shouting “I’m innocent” as FSB agents led him into a courtroom where a judge considered - and ultimately granted - the FSB’s request to authorize his arrest. The judge ordered Safronov jailed for two months as the investigation continues
Safronov's detention sent shock waves across Russian media, with many journalists questioning the treason charges and his former newspaper openly rejecting them as “absurd.”
The FSB said that Safronov is accused of relaying sensitive data to a spy agency of an unspecified NATO member. It said in a statement that the information he provided referred to “military-technical cooperation, defense and security of the Russian Federation.”
After the court hearing, Safronov's lawyers said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies that the FSB has accused Safronov of cooperating with an intelligence agency in the Czech Republic when he worked as a correspondent for top Russian business daily Kommersant.
The FSB charged that in 2017 he passed sensitive information about Russian arms sales to the Middle East and Africa to Czech intelligence, they said.
Defense lawyer Yevgeny Smirnov said the FSB alleged that the Czech intelligence agency recruited Safronov in 2012, paid him for his services and collected the information for U.S. interests.
Another lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, said the materials the FSB provided during the court hearing lacked evidence related to the passing of sensitive data, Russian news agency Interfax reported.
The FSB released video footage of plainclothes agents stopping Safronov outside his apartment building, searching him and putting him inside a minivan in handcuffs.
Safronov could face up to 20 years in prison, if convicted.
Roscosmos said that Safronov didn't have access to state secrets, and claimed that the charges didn't relate to Safronov's work for the corporation, which he joined in May. Prior to that, Safronov worked for the Kommersant daily for nearly a decade until 2019, and after that worked for a year for another business daily, Vedomosti.
He covered military issues, arms trade and government affairs.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Safronov's detention wasn't related to his activities as a journalist. Grilled about the case during a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Peskov described Safronov, who once covered the Kremlin, as a “talented journalist.”
Kommersant put out a statement in support of Safronov, hailing him as one of the country's top journalists and a “true patriot” who was deeply concerned about the state of the military and space industries that he covered. The newspaper described the accusations against him as “absurd.”
The paper noted that rights activists, journalists, scientists and corporate officials who faced treason accusations found it difficult to defend themselves because of secrecy surrounding their cases and lack of public access.
“As a result, the public has to rely on the narrative offered by special services, whose work has increasingly raised questions,” Kommersant said. “Journalists asking those questions find themselves under blow.”
About 20 journalists, including those who worked with Safronov for years, were detained outside FSB headquarters in Moscow when they picketed to protest his arrest. Some were handed court summons for violating a ban on street gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic, an offense punishable by an administrative fine.
Many former colleagues of Safronov alleged that the authorities may have wanted to take revenge for his reporting that exposed Russian military incidents and opaque arms trade deals.
Last year, the FSB reportedly opened an inquiry following publication of an article by Safronov that claimed that Russia had signed a contract with Egypt for the delivery of sophisticated Su-35 fighter jets. Kommersant later removed the report from its website, and no charges were filed.
Safronov left the paper following another article, claiming that the speaker of the Russian parliament's upper house was about to step down, provoked official anger.
Safronov's father also worked for Kommersant after retiring from the armed forces and covered military issues. In 2007, he died after falling from a window of his apartment building in Moscow.
Investigators concluded that he killed himself, but some Russian media questioned the official version, pointing to his intent to publish a sensitive report about secret arms deliveries to Iran and Syria.