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Last major independent Russia news outlet shuts down

Novaya Gazeta covered Chechnya anti-LGBTQ crackdown

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Moscow offices of Novaya Gazeta (Screenshot/AFP YouTube)

The last major independent Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, announced Monday that it was shutting down after receiving a new notice from Roskomnadzor, the Russian media telecommunications regulator threatening to shut it down or revoke its license.

The Russian federal agency stated that the news outlet was in violation of Russia’s new wartime censorship law over the coverage of the warfare being conducted in Ukraine.

Novaya Gazeta’s Nobel prize winning editor-in-chief Dmitri A. Muratov posted online that he “has decided to suspend publications” of the newspaper on the web and on paper “until the end of the special operation on the territory of Ukraine.”

Muratov’s decision is leaving Russia without any major media outlets critical of the Kremlin as it wages war in Ukraine.

Novaya Gazeta in the post-Soviet Putin-era Russia has fearlessly covered issues, publishing its investigations into corruption within the Russian Federation’s government, the Wagner mercenaries, described as a private military company, a network of mercenaries, or a de facto private army of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the persecution of LGBTQ people, in particular gay men, in Chechnya.

There are numerous journalists from Novaya Gazeta who have been murdered since 2000 following their investigations including Anastasia Baburova, Yuri Shchekochikhin and Anna Politkovskaja, known mainly for her reports on the Second Chechen War and for her harsh criticism against the Russian federal government.

Elena Kostyuchenko, interviewed four years ago by Washington Blade International Editor Michael K. Lavers, broke the story in Novaya Gazeta over the anti-gay purge by Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, an ally to the Russian president.

Elena Kostyuchenko is a reporter for Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper.
(Photo by Yulia Balashova)

Kostyuchenko acknowledged she and her colleagues received death threats after they began to report on the anti-gay crackdown in Chechnya. Kadyrov described Novaya Gazeta reporters as “enemies of our faith and our homeland” in a speech he delivered at the main mosque in the Chechen capital of Grozny shortly after news of the crackdown broke. Novaya Gazeta in a statement said 15,000 people had gathered at the mosque for the speech.

“I jumped on the story just to share the danger with my colleagues,” Kostyuchenko told the Blade. “It’s how we’re doing things at Novaya. If some topic’s extremely dangerous, we try to involve as many journalists as we can to spread the danger.”

Kostyuchenko throughout the interview with the Blade was highly critical of Putin over LGBTQ rights and a host of other issues that include corruption and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Muratov announced he will auction the Nobel medal received last fall and will donate the proceeds to the Fund for Ukrainian Refugees. At the same time, he called for an immediate ceasefire, the exchange of prisoners, the bodies of killed soldiers and the opening of humanitarian corridors from the besieged Ukrainian cities.

“What we can do: share with refugees, injured people and children in urgent need of care what is dear to us and that is of value to others,” he wrote on the newspaper’s website in an ad in Russian, English and Ukrainian.

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Putin slams LGBTQ people in Ukraine annexation speech

The international community has condemned sham referenda

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(YouTube screenshot from AFP/NBC)

In a rally ceremony that resembled a political convention on Sept. 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated his signing a decree that Russia had annexed four regions of Eastern Ukraine that were overrun by Russian military forces and Russian-backed separatists.

“The people made their choice,” said Putin in the formal signing ceremony at the Kremlin’s St. George Hall. “And that choice won’t be betrayed” by Russia, he said.

This past week, in an election President Joe Biden labeled fraudulent and a sham, Ukrainians in the occupied territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia voted to join Russia in elections supervised by heavily armed Russian troops.

Speaking from the White House on Sept. 30, Biden said the U.S. and its allies will not recognize Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian regions and reaffirmed that NATO countries will defend all territory in the alliance.

Addressing the Russian leader, Biden said “Mr. Putin, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Every inch.”

America and its allies are not going to — I’m going to emphasize, are not going to be intimidated, are not going to be intimidated by Putin and his reckless words and threats. He’s not going to scare us and he doesn’t — or intimidate us.

Putin’s actions are a sign he’s struggling. The sham referenda he carried out and this routine he put on, don’t worry, it’s not there if you’re looking, OK. The sham routine that we put on this morning that’s showing the unity and people holding hands together. Well, the United States is never going to recognize this and quite frankly, the world is not going to recognize it either. He can’t seize his neighbor’s territory and get away with it. It’s as simple as that.

And they’re going to stay the course. We’re going to continue to provide military equipment so that Ukraine can defend itself and its territory and its freedom, … And we’re fully prepared to defend, I want to say this again, America is fully prepared with our NATO allies to defend every single inch of NATO’s territory, every single inch. So Mr. Putin, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Every inch.”

Putin in his speech at the ceremony, which took place on a massive stage in Moscow’s Red Square opposite the Kremlin’s walls, took aim at the West with particular emphasis on Western values and culture.

“Western countries have been repeating for centuries that they bring freedom and democracy to other peoples. Everything is exactly the opposite: instead of democracy — suppression and exploitation; instead of freedom — enslavement and violence,” Putin said.

Later during the speech Putin decried the LGBTQ community and Western nations that allow equity and equality and human rights:

“In fact, they spit on the natural right of billions of people, most of humanity, to freedom and justice, to determine their own future on their own. Now they have completely moved to a radical denial of moral norms, religion, and family.

Let’s answer some very simple questions for ourselves. I now want to return to what I said, I want to address all the citizens of the country — not only to those colleagues who are in the hall — to all the citizens of Russia: do we want to have, here, in our country, in Russia, parent number one, number two, number three instead of mom and dad — have they gone made out there? Do we really want perversions that lead to degradation and extinction to be imposed on children in our schools from the primary grades? To be drummed into them that there are various supposed genders besides women and men, and to be offered a sex change operation? Do we want all this for our country and our children? For us, all this is unacceptable, we have a different future, our own future?”

Putin then implied directly that the U.S. and its NATO allies assisting Ukraine were trying to erase Russian culture and then justified the annexation of the four regions in Eastern Ukraine:

“Today we are fighting so that it would never occur to anyone that Russia, our people, our language, our culture can be taken and erased from history. Today, we need the consolidation of the entire society, and such cohesion can only be based on sovereignty, freedom, creation and justice. Our values ​​are humanity, mercy and compassion.

And I want to end my speech with the words of a true patriot Ivan Alexandrovich Ilyin: ‘If I consider Russia my Motherland, then this means that I love in Russian, contemplate and think, sing and speak Russian; that I believe in the spiritual strength of the Russian people. His spirit is my spirit; his fate is my fate; his suffering is my grief; its flowering is my joy.’

Behind these words is a great spiritual choice, which for more than a thousand years of Russian statehood was followed by many generations of our ancestors. Today we are making this choice, the citizens of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, the residents of Zaporozhye and Kherson regions have made this choice. They made the choice to be with their people, to be with the Motherland, to live its destiny, to win together with it.”

Putin has long held homophobic and transphobic opinions and has signed multiple pieces of legislation that has sharply curtailed LGBTQ rights and expression in Russia during his 18 years as president, including the country’s “Don’t Say Gay” law signed in 2013 that has been strengthened and augmented by succeeding measures.

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Brittney Griner appeals 9-year prison sentence

Russian court on Aug. 4 convicted WNBA star of drug smuggling.

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(Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Lawyers for WNBA star Brittney Griner on Monday appealed the nine-year prison sentence she received earlier this month after a Russian court convicted her of smuggling drugs into the country.

The court on Aug. 4 convicted Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner — and sentenced her to nine years in a penal colony.

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Brittney Griner after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department subsequently determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

Brittney Griner in July pleaded guilty to the drug smuggling charges.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly acknowledged the U.S. has offered Russia a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, another American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence after his conviction for spying.

American officials have reportedly expressed a willingness to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., as part of a prisoner swap.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week said his country was “ready to discuss” a potential deal with the U.S. A spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry later confirmed negotiations between the two countries over a potential prisoner swap have begun.

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Russia

Russian court convicts Brittney Griner

WNBA star sentenced to nine years in penal colony

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(Screenshot from Russian television)

A Russian court on Thursday found WNBA star Brittney Griner guilty of charges that she smuggled drugs into the country.

The court sentenced Griner to nine years in a Russian penal colony. Prosecutors had sought a 9 1/2-year prison sentence.

Griner — a Phoenix Mercury center and two-time Olympic gold medalist who is a lesbian and married to her wife, Cherelle Griner — spoke in court earlier on Thursday.

“I had no intent on breaking any Russian law,” said Brittney Griner.

Officials at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February detained Brittney Griner after customs inspectors allegedly found hashish oil in her luggage. The State Department subsequently determined that Russia “wrongfully detained” her.

Brittney Griner last month pleaded guilty to the drug smuggling charges.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has publicly acknowledged the U.S. has offered Russia a deal to secure the release of Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, another American citizen who is serving a 16-year prison sentence after his conviction for spying.

American officials have reportedly expressed a willingness to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the U.S., as part of a prisoner swap.

“Today, American citizen Brittney Griner received a prison sentence that is one more reminder of what the world already knew: Russia is wrongfully detaining Brittney,” said President Joe Biden in a statement after Brittney Griner’s conviction and sentencing. “It’s unacceptable, and I call on Russia to release her immediately so she can be with her wife, loved ones, friends, and teammates. My administration will continue to work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue to bring Brittney and Paul Whelan home safely as soon as possible.”

National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby during the White House’s daily press briefing described the sentence as “reprehensible in its scope” and stressed Griner “shouldn’t have even been on trial.”

“I certainly can’t get inside the head of a Russian judge,” said Kirby. “We have seen similar maximum sentences for drug charges of foreigners in Russia. Just historically speaking, foreigners that are arrested on drug charges and then convicted under their system tend to get much higher sentences than would be Russian citizens.”

Elizabeth Rood, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, described the verdict as “a miscarriage of justice” in a statement she read to reporters outside the court. Blinken in his own statement agreed.

“Today’s conviction and sentencing by a Russian court of U.S. citizen Brittney Griner to nine years in prison further compounds the injustice of her wrongful detention,” said Blinken. “This step puts a spotlight on our significant concerns with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda, using individuals as political pawns.”    

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver issued a joint statement after the court announced its verdict and sentencing.

“Today’s verdict and sentencing is unjustified and unfortunate, but not unexpected and Brittney Griner remains wrongfully detained,” reads the statement. “The WNBA and NBA’s commitment to her safe return has not wavered and it is our hope that we are near the end of this process of finally bringing BG home to the United States.”

The Human Rights Campaign also condemned the conviction and sentencing.

“This sentencing is unjust, plain and simple,” tweeted HRC. “Brittney Griner deserves to be back home with her family and loved ones.”

Blinken said “nothing about today’s decision changes our determination that Brittney Griner is wrongfully detained, and we will continue working to bring Brittney and fellow wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan home.”

“This is an absolute priority of mine and the department’s,” he stressed.

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