An Airport Delay, Russian Style

(Moscow) - Anna Sharogradskaya, Russia's leading researcher and proponent of journalism ethics, was about to board her flight at St. Petersburg's international airport early this afternoon when she heard her name called on a loudspeaker instructing her to proceed immediately to the "manual inspection room" on the third floor of the terminal. It was 20 minutes before boarding and as Sharogradskaya was looking for the right room, she told me later, it suddenly occurred to her that she had just bought three bottles of duty-free liquor as gifts for friends, but only two are officially allowed.

She felt awkward -- an elderly woman called in for inspection for attempting to "smuggle" duty-free alcohol. So, she got ready to apologize, hand over the third bottle, and pay a fine if needed. However, once she entered the room it was clear that the customs officials weren't interested in her duty-free purchases. They wanted something else: her computer, her iPad, her memory sticks. They searched her bags, took all her equipment and refused to answer her questions.

In fact, they said they didn't know anything but had received instructions from Federal Security Service (FSB) officials, who were supposedly "already on the way" and would explain everything.

Sharogradskaya's flight was about to take off, and when she tried to argue the officials just said, "If you are unhappy, feel free to appeal" to the courts. The flight left without her.

Sharogradskaya was supposed to fly to Helsinki, then transfer to a New York flight, and finally to Indianapolis. Since 1989, she's been spending every summer at the University of Indiana at Bloomington, where she teaches a graduate-level course on Russia through the prism of mass media.

When I spoke to Sharogradskaya on the phone, she told me she wasn't sure she'd be allowed to leave the country. That was two hours into her detention and she was in total limbo. Her lawyer was on his way to the airport, but officials told her they wouldn't let him in. They said she did not need a lawyer as she wasn't officially in detention. So was she free to take her things and leave? Was it her choice to sit there? Missing her flight? Waiting for some mysterious FSB officials? Watching customs officials rifle through her things?

Sharogradskaya's lawyer arrived after she had been there for three hours. As promised, the officials did not let him in. After another two hours, with the lawyer raising hell, Sharogradskaya was allowed to leave. Her computer, iPad, and memory sticks had been already packed and sealed by the officials, who said they were turning the equipment over to the FSB. The long-awaited FSB representatives never showed up.

A customs officials told LifeNews that the FSB indicated that Sharogradskaya was suspected of smuggling classified documents. She has not been charged, however. In fact, when bidding her farewell, the officials suggested that she exchange her ticket and fly tomorrow. Needless to say, her equipment would stay behind indefinitely.

Sharogradskaya believes her detention could be linked to the fact that her nongovernmental organization, Regional Press Institute (RPI), was suing the prosecutor's office in connection with an allegedly unlawful inspection. Back in 2013, when the prosecutors ran aggressive inspections in the offices of hundreds of independent groups across the country, RPI was one of the groups that received a warning for possible involvement in "political activity."

RPI, founded in 1993, works with journalists and schools of journalism to promote higher professional standards and ethics, including through training and capacity building. Last month, prosecutors came again for a similar inspection, demanding numerous documents. When RPI inquired about the reasons behind the inspection, the prosecutor's office did not reply, so RPI lodged a complaint with a court.

Whether or not Sharogradskaya's suspicions are accurate, the facts remain that she spent hours deprived of her liberty under tremendous stress, was not allowed to see her lawyer, missed her flight, was forced to hand over her equipment and memory cards to officials for an indefinite period of time, and received neither an explanation nor an apology from the officials involved.

In recent months Russia's crackdown on independent thinkers has meant new, restrictive laws, vicious rhetoric against "traitors," and now this new low -- shameless bullying of a respected, elderly activist.