Media Tycoon Says Russia Fears Free Press

By Adam Brown, Associated Press, Washington Post, Thursday 15 June 2000

MOSCOW—Russian media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky said in a handwritten note from jail Thursday that his arrest was the work of a government that feared press freedom and was moving toward dictatorship.

“This is political intrigue, organized by high-ranking representatives of the government who consider freedom of speech a danger,” Gusinsky said in the statement.

The officials look on a free news media as “an obstacle to building a new Russia as they see it, which in effect means a return to the totalitarian past, complete with gulags,” he said, referring to the Soviet-era system of brutal labor camps that were filled with political prisoners as well as convicted criminals.

He did not name any officials.

The statement was read by Gusinsky's attorney Genri Reznik in front of the Butyrskaya jail, where Gusinsky has been held since his arrest Tuesday. It did not address the question of whether President Vladimir Putin knew about the arrest plans in advance.

Prosecutors said Gusinsky is suspected of taking part in the theft of $10 million in state funds in a privatization deal. He has not been formally charged, but prosecutors promised to do so within 10 days.

“During the first interrogation, I witnessed a laughable scene with two investigators quarreling and interrupting one another for half an hour as they tried to say what they suspect me of,” he said. “I could only call that an absurdity.”

Gusinsky's lawyer Reznik referred to official statements accusing Gusinsky as “delirium” and said that the defense had filed an appeal in a Moscow court seeking his release. A hearing was scheduled for Tuesday.

Reznik urged Putin to fire Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov for “trampling the law.” Ustinov has refused to discuss the case with the news media.

Reznik said that confinement in a hot and cramped cell was bad for Gusinsky's health, which he described as not very strong. Justice Ministry officials said Gusinsky was allowed to have a television and a refrigerator.

Gusinsky heads the Media-Most company, whose news organizations have been critical of the Kremlin.

The arrest has been widely seen in Russia as the Kremlin's attempt to stifle criticism, and it has put Putin under fire during his trip to Spain and Germany.

Asked by journalists why one of Russia's most prominent business and media leaders had been put behind bars, Putin said in Spain that he hadn’t known about the decision to arrest Gusinsky and promised to look into the case when he returns to Russia.

“The people who are carrying out the investigation don’t know the law,” said Pavel Astakhov, another Gusinsky lawyer. “Instead of encouraging business activities, they hamper it, they put in a jail a person who has created the largest private media holding.”

Russian newspapers continued to assail the arrest Thursday.

“If the authorities continue to behave like an elephant in a china shop, nothing will be left of Putin's positive image abroad,” said the popular daily Moskovsky Komsomolets.

The newspaper scoffed at Putin's claim that he had been unaware of plans to arrest Gusinsky.

“If they throw one of the most famous men in Russia behind bars … it means the president is weak and not in charge,” the paper said. And if Putin knew and approved ahead of time, the paper said, “that means he is the main persecutor of dissent.”

In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak asked Russian officials to reconsider Gusinsky's arrest, stepping up Israel's pressure to release him.

Gusinsky is Jewish and is head of the Russian Jewish Federation. He also holds Russian and Israeli citizenship and owns 25 percent of Maariv, Israel's second-largest newspaper.