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RFE/RL: Russian Fiction Writer Faces Possible Libel Charges

August 17, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's modern literary history might soon open a new chapter -- an author facing libel charges for characterizations contained in a work of fiction. Moscow city prosecutors have already questioned Pavel Astakhov about his novel, "Raider," and are now deciding whether to open a criminal case.  The head of the city police's main investigative directorate, Ivan Glukhov, initiated the investigation by asking prosecutors to open a criminal case against Astakhov and his publishing company.
 

According to Glukhov, the novel "contains numerous insulting and libelous deliberations" about the directorate, and defames the reputation of Russian police in general.  In his letter to prosecutors, Glukhov acknowledges that the novel is "literary-fictional," but argues that, because the text refers to a police unit that actually exists, readers are being led to believe that events depicted in the story are true.

The author's lawyer, Mikhail Burmistrov, strongly disagrees. He tells RFE/RL's Russian Service that the issue of police corruption is nothing new -- and is even openly addressed by high-ranking officials in Russia. Therefore, Burmistrov says, his client's book is simply touching on a recognized problem:  "He [Astakhov] is not saying anything new, just highlighting some problems more clearly. And, what's most important from a legal perspective, he does not mention a single concrete individual. This is really a work of fiction. And fictional work is that is created by author's imagination."
 

"Raider," which can be described as a crime thriller, follows a plot centered on mergers and acquisitions among companies. The protagonist, a businessman, bribes officers from the investigative directorate, who raid companies and open criminal cases to his benefit. But in the story, a young lawyer confronts the corruption.
 

The possibility that a criminal case could be opened against Astakhov has surprised many. The genre of crime thrillers is very popular in Russia, and the wrongdoings of law-enforcement agencies are often addressed in works of fiction.

Some analysts believe that there are deeper motives behind this case -- that it is intended to serve as a warning to authors by holding the threat of prosecution for what they write over their heads.

Sergei Lukyanenko, arguably the most popular science-fiction writer in Russia today, is among those who feel this way. The author of the hugely popular "Day Watch" and "Night Watch" series spoke to RFE/RL about his concerns:  "Of course this worries me. Because it's easy to cross the line between observing the law, which is an essential part of any civilized country, and abusing the rights of ordinary citizens, abusing freedom of speech, and so on. This is a very difficult thing -- and in the struggle to protect these laws it would be easy to overstep the mark and start to limit a person's right to express himself freely."
 

To some commentators, the possible case against Astakhov also represents part of an ongoing crackdown on independence within the country's legal system.

Apart from being a writer, Astakhov is a successful lawyer. And at various times he has represented Russia's formerly independent television company, NTV -- now owned by state monopoly Gazprom; and Yukos, against which the government led a politically charged campaign.

Some believe that such activities of an independent lawyer may have angered the authorities.
Prosecutors are expected to decide within a week whether to move forward with charges against Astakhov.

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