Russia’s Gazprombank Freezes Accounts of Venezuela’s PDVSA, Source Says

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Russian lender Gazprombank has decided to freeze the accounts of Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA and halted transactions with the firm to reduce the risk of the bank falling under U.S. sanctions, a Gazprombank source told Reuters on Sunday.

While many foreign firms have been cutting their exposure to PDVSA since the sanctions were imposed, the fact that a lender closely aligned with the Russian state is following suit is significant because the Kremlin has been among Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s staunchest supporters.

“PDVSA’s accounts are currently frozen. As you’ll understand, operations cannot be carried out,” the source said. Gazprombank did not reply to a Reuters request for a comment.

Reuters reported this month that PDVSA was telling customers of its joint ventures to deposit oil sales proceeds in its Gazprombank accounts, according to sources and an internal document, in a move to try to sideline fresh U.S. sanctions on PDVSA.

Washington says the sanctions, imposed on Jan. 28, are aimed at blocking Maduro’s access to the country’s oil revenue after opposition leader Juan Guaido proclaimed himself interim president and received widespread Western support.

Gazprombank is Russia’s third biggest lender by assets and includes among its shareholders Russian state gas company Gazprom.

The bank has held PDVSA accounts for several years. In 2013, PDVSA said it signed a deal with Gazprombank for $1 billion in financing for the Petrozamora company. The source said that Petrozamora accounts were frozen, too.

Russian officials have said they stand by Maduro and have condemned opposition actions as a U.S.-inspired ploy to usurp power in Caracas.

But Russian firms find themselves in a quandary, caught between a desire to endorse the Kremlin line and back Maduro, and the fear that by doing so they could expose themselves to secondary U.S. sanctions which would harm their businesses.

 

Source : The Moscow Times

Russian Court Convicts Danish Jehovah’s Witness to 6 Years for ‘Extremism’

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Dennis Christensen / Courtesy of Jehovah’s Witnesses

A Russian court for the first time convicted a Jehovah’s Witness, Danish national Dennis Christensen, on extremism charges, BBC Russia reported on Wedneday.

Christensen, 46, was detained by armed security forces in the midst of a Bible reading in Oryol almost 400 kilometers south of Moscow. His detention in May 2017 came a month after Russia’s Supreme Court declared the Jehovah’s Witnesses an extremist group. The Jehovah’s Witnesses doctrine, placing God above country, has earned the Christian denomination the distrust of governments around the world, including the United States, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

State prosecutors had asked for a prison sentence of 6.5 years under charges that carry up to 10 years of imprisonment.

Amnesty International called on Russia to “immediately and unconditionally” release Christensen ahead of the verdict. In his last word on Jan. 30, Christensen called his trial “unfair,” “absolutely stupid and insane.”

“We deeply regret the conviction of Dennis Christensen—an innocent man who did not commit any real crime,” Yaroslav Sivulsky, a representative of the European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, wrote in an emailed statement to The Moscow Times.

“It is sad that reading the bible, preaching, and living a moral way of life is again a criminal offense in Russia,” he added.

“If this verdict stands, our concern grows for the more than 100 other Jehovah’s Witnesses who are likewise facing criminal charges for their faith,” Jarrod Lopes, a spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses at their world headquarters in New York, told The Moscow Times by email.

Lopes earlier said that hundreds of Jehovah’s Witnesses may have fled Russia since the court ruling that banned the group. He estimated that 175,000 adherents reside in Russia.

Reuters contributed reporting to this article.

 

Source : The Moscow Times

Russian Opposition Rallies Calling For Release of Political Prisoners

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Sergei Fadeichev / TASS

On Sunday Feb.10, Russian protesters rallied in Moscow and St. Petersburg to demand freedom for political prisoners after a daughter of activist Anastasia Shevchenko died in hospital while her mother was under house arrest.

Shevchenko is a member of Open Russia movement, founded by Kremlin critic and former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and was arrested in January, accused of cooperation with an organization marked as “undesirable” and put under house arrest.

Rights and other lobby groups that receive foreign funding have come under pressure in Russiasince Putin signed into law legislation in 2015, banning “undesirable” organizations from operating in the country.

The Open Russia movement’s media service said seven protesters were detained at the protest in St. Petersburg.

 

Source : The Moscow Times

Russian Journalist Charged With ‘Justifying Terrorism’ After Critical Comments

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Svetlana Prokopyeva / Facebook / MT

A Russian reporter faces possible jail time over comments about a 2018 suicide bombing that was critical of the authorities, in a case that rights activists have called an attack on free speech.

Security officers raided journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva’s home in the northwestern city of Pskov on Wednesday in connection with her on-air criticism of the state late last year. In her comments about the October 2018 bombing of a security forces building in Arkhangelsk that is believed to have been carried out by a 17-year-old, Prokopyeva alleged that the government had “itself” raised a generation that was ready to fight against it.

Prokopyeva, who also contributes to the U.S.-funded RFE/RL’s Russian Service, has been reportedly charged with inciting terrorism and faces up to seven years behind bars if convicted.

“In the interrogation, I voiced disagreement with [the charges] against me, after which I cited Article 51 of the Constitution against self-incrimination ,” she told the Fontanka.ru news website Thursday.

A Pskov court fined the Pskovskaya Lenta Novostey news outlet 200,000 rubles ($3,000) for transcribing and publishing Prokopyeva’s on-air comments in November, Russian media reported Thursday. The Ekho Moskvy radio station’s Pskov affiliate was also fined 150,000 rubles for broadcasting Propkopyeva’s show.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said the case sends “a signal to journalists that [the authorities] will not tolerate any criticism of how the authorities respond to perceived terrorism or extremism.”

 

Source : The Moscow Times

Online Censorship Cases in Russia Skyrocketed in 2018, NGO Says

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Sergei Kiselyov / Moskva News Agency

Internet freedom continued to decline over the past year in Russia, with bans and limits on information skyrocketing, according to a new report released by the Agora human rights group.

More than 115,500 cases of censorship were recorded in 2017, Agora, which tracks internet and media freedom in Russia, saidlast year. Since then, Russia enacted anti-terror legislation that expanded the state’s surveillance powers and began a sweeping pursuit to ban the Telegram messaging app.

Agora recorded 662,842 cases of internet censorship faced by Russian users in 2018 — nearly a six-fold increase from 2017 — according to the report published Tuesday.

Censorship expanded from 26 to 41 Russian regions last year, the NGO said.

Meanwhile, the report says violence against users and prosecutions for online activity declined between 2017 and 2018.

“There were fluctuations for certain types of violations, but the general trend is definitely toward strictness,” the report’s co-author Damir Gainutdinov told BBC Russia.

Source : The Moscow Times