Just this week, we celebrated that a journalist in Russia would not be going to prison, despite a guilty verdict against her on bogus charges. But today, news broke that the Federal Security Service (FSB) arrested veteran journalist Ivan Safronov on treason charges. In an apparently related development, the FSB also raided the home of Safronov’s friend, journalist Taisiya Bekbulatova, who is being interrogated as a case witness.

This is a dangerous development. If convicted, Safronov could face a maximum 20-year prison sentence.

Safronov covered business, politics, and foreign affairs for Kommersant, one of Russia’s most prominent business newspapers until 2019, when he was pressured to resign. After, he started reporting for Vedomosti, from which he resigned several months ago after the arrival of a new editor-in-chief who started censoring certain types of political criticism. He became an advisor at Roskosmos, Russia’s space agency, which stated today that his arrest has nothing to do with his work there.

The FSB alleges that Safronov sent classified information to a NATO member state, but it may be some time before we know if any facts lie behind these claims – or if we ever do. The FSB will likely pressure Safronov’s lawyers to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Should the case go to trial, treason cases are tried in closed hearing. Ivan Pavlov, head of Team 29, a legal defense team working on treason and espionage cases, described being barred access to his defendant’s classified case documents, including to regulations governing procedures for accessing documents containing state secrets. Lawyers in treason cases can face barriers to accessing their clients.

Meanwhile, the number of treason cases brought by the FSB has sharply risen over the years. Pavlov has said that in the late 1990s through 2006 there were 2 to 3 such cases every year, but 7 per year between 2007 and 2016. In 2019, Kommersant counted 8.

The FSB has previously used treason charges to go after journalists, environmentalists, and scientists, and even average citizens, accusing them of accessing or transmitting material already available through open sources. Today, Kommersant vouched for Safronov’s “highest professionalism and character” and called the treason accusations “absurd.”

As I write this, Safronov’s lawyers stated on Telegram that the FSB would not allow them access to their client. The FSB should immediately allow access to Safronov, release him from custody, and ensure his legal team can mount a robust defense.

By Rachel Denber, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Division