MOSCOW, July 3 (RIA Novosti) – The head of an independent online publication that has for years angered authorities in Russia’s fourth largest city pleaded guilty to tax crime, but denied other charges brought against her at a trial that started Wednesday.
Aksana Panova faces up to 15 years in prison on a string of charges that include extortion, embezzlement and money laundering. The former editor-in-chief of the Ura.ru news agency in the Urals city Yekaterinburg claims that regional officials fabricated the charges as a response to critical reports and an award-winning advertising campaign that highlighted their shortcomings.
In mid-June, her website won four top prizes, including one for “best use of guerilla marketing,” at the Cannes Lions advertising and communications festival for its 2012 “Make the Politicians Work” campaign. The campaign, which boosted road-repairs in Yekaterinburg, featured caricatures of the mayor, the governor, and the deputy mayor painted on rutted asphalt next to promises to fix the dilapidated roads.
Panova said Wednesday that she “admits” to having withdrawn 12 million rubles ($400,000) after the money was transferred out of Ura.ru’s bank account to fictitious companies over the past several years.
She refuted the embezzlement charges, saying she used the money to pay staff salaries – a practice that Russian businesses often use to avoid hefty welfare payments. The offense is punishable by a fine.
The 39-year-old single mother also denied extorting money from a businessman and said she never threatened to publish defamatory stories about him.
In a statement posted online on Tuesday, she said that the trial follows “searches, interrogations, defamation in the mass media paid for by the [Yekaterinburg) governor [Yevgeny Porunov]” and claimed that people close to her had been subjected to “nine months of abuse.”
Founded in 2006, Panova’s agency ran reports about corrupt officials and police officers involved in shady deals in the Urals region, one of Russia’s leading oil producers and a major industrial center. Although prone to sensationalism, Ura.ru won praise as one of the few independent publications to survive in Russia despite a Kremlin-led effort to silence government critics.
It also extensively covered a feud between prominent Russian anti-drugs campaigner Yevgeny Roizman and law enforcement agencies that accused him of abduction and torture. Roizman founded a successful rehabilitation center for drug addicts in Yekaterinburg and led a relentless campaign against drug dealers and corrupt police officers and officials.