Ivan Safronov, 30, was arrested in central Moscow six days ago — bundled into a van and whisked to Lefortovo, a high-security prison favoured by intelligence services in the east of the city.
Mr Safronov was considered one of the finest military reporters of his generation, and a longtime member of the Kremlin reporter pool, before starting work for as a spokesman for Roscosmos, Russia's space agency, in May.
A group of journalists held a picket outside the prison on Monday ahead of the expected confirmation of the treason charge. Police arrested about a dozen of them.
Mr Safronov’s case has been cloaked in secrecy from the start, with authorities classifying the affair, and refusing to offer any evidence of their suspicions.
Speaking with The Independent, lawyer Ivan Pavlov said he understood Russia’s security agency, the FSB, was advancing a theory that Mr Safronov was recruited by the Czech Republic in 2012, and later sent undetermined information to an unidentified representative.
The same theory supposed the end beneficiary of the operation was the United States.
In a brief court appearance last week, Mr Safronov denied he was guilty of any crime.
A star reporter for the Kommersant and then Vedomosti broadsheets, Mr Safronov's success was always tempered by tragedy and following in his dead father’s footsteps.
Ivan Safronov Sr, also a military journalist with Kommersant, fell to his death in 2007 from window in his Moscow apartment block. It is widely assumed he was murdered after angering the country's military with stories he co-wrote about illegal Russian arms sales via Belarus.
The younger Safronov also regularly touched upon sensitive themes, though was never openly hostile to the authorities. Friends and lawyers believe articles on Russian fighter sales to Egypt may have angered security officials.
On Saturday, Sergei Nayshkin, the head of Russia’s foreign spy service insisted his prosecution was unconnected with his “professional,” i.e. journalistic activity.
That narrative is not immediately consistent with the accounts of Mr Safronov’s lawyers, nor indeed the chronology of events. Mr Safronov had been working as a spokesman for Roscosmos for just six weeks at the time of his arrest. It is not particularly credible that Mr Safronov was recruited to spy and then successfully investigated by counter-intelligence in the space of six weeks.
Another explanation for Mr Safronov’s prosecution focuses on interclan rivalries within the Russian system. Some have interpreted it as a move against Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos. Intriguingly, Mr Rogozin refused to criticise his employee, praising instead his “true professionalism and personal integrity.” Mr Safronov had no access to state secrets, he added.
Others believe geopolitics — especially the rapidly deteriorating relations with Prague following the expulsion of diplomats — may have played a role.
Whatever the reality, the formal treason charge raises the stakes in strained relations between the Kremlin and the country’s press corps.
Mr Safronov is only the second professional journalist to be charged with treason in the history of post-Soviet Russia. The last arrest was over two decades ago, in 1997, when Grigory Pasko, a journalist for the in-house newspaper for Russia’s Pacific Sea fleet, was accused of spying for the Japanese.
Unlike Mr Safronov, Mr Pasko had low-level security clearance, making his case potentially the more serious. He insisted he never had access to state secrets, and a military court initially agreed with him and dismissed the case in 1999. But he was re-tried two years later — an altogether new era under President Putin — and was sentenced to 3 years in prison.
Speaking with the independent, Mr Pasko described Mr Safronov’s prosecution as “a warning shot” to journalists.
“The FSB is sending a message to journalists that they can only write on sensitive topics if they have the prior permission of the FSB,” he said. “Safronov didn’t have access to state secrets so it will be interesting to see how they intend to demonstrate he was a spy.”
Mr Pasko said Russia’s security services seemed to be working under a “new understanding” following the declaration of “resounding triumph” in the Kremlin’s 1 July constitutional vote earlier this month.
Within a week of Vladimir Putin receiving the keys to stay in power until 2036, authorities have clamped down forcefully.
On 6 July, journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva was found guilty of “inciting terrorism” in a column where she criticised the government.
On 7 July, Mr Safronov was arrested, with his girlfriend, a magazine editor, following later in the day. In a parallel development, prosecutors demanded a 15-year prison sentence for an elderly dissident historian Yuri Dmitriyev held on refuted paedophilia charges already dismissed by a local court.
On 8 July, police detained a popular independent governor in the Russian Far East over “contract killings” that supposedly took place over a decade ago.
“They have got the green light,” Mr Pasko said. “And the breaks are off.”