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St. Louis residents charged with illegally acting as Russian agents call indictments ‘bogus’

Three St. Louis residents indicted by a federal grand jury last month on charges of acting as illegal agents of the Russian government and illegally pushing pro-Russian propaganda about Ukraine through the African People's Socialist Party said Wednesday that they’re being unfairly targeted.

In the group’s first public address since the indictment, African People's Socialist Party Chairman Omali Yeshitela said during a press conference at the organization’s St. Petersburg, Florida, office that the indictment is an attack on their free speech rights under the First Amendment.

“I believe in free speech,” Yeshitela said. “Free speech has to be afforded to Black people, if it’s not afforded to us then there can’t be no free speech for anybody, and this is something that everybody should understand.”

Yeshitela, Penny Joanne Hess and Jesse Nevel have pleaded not guilty.

Their lawyers said they’re still waiting for federal authorities to detail the government’s case.

Hess called the indictments “bogus” and compared the charges to the treatment of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Fred Hampton and other Black leaders.

“The chairman has done what cities and states don't do,” Hess said. “He raised resources, often from the white community as a stand of reparations that creates programs that actually changed the lives of the African community.”

Lawyers for Hess and Nevel said the charges were unusual. Nevel’s lawyer said he hoped the indictment wouldn’t get in the way of the community work that the organization does.

Nevel, chair of the Uhuru Solidarity Movement that fights for reparations for Black people, ran for mayor of St. Petersburg in 2017. He called the charges that he, Hess and Yeshitela acted as illegal Russian agents “idiotic” and “laughable" and asked that people demand federal authorities to drop the charges.

“We speak not for some foreign malign influence, but for the millions of other white people out there who refuse to be complicit with our own governments, unceasing state sanctioned terror and violence against African people,” Nevel said.

Original story from April 18

A federal grand jury has charged three St. Louis residents with illegally pushing pro-Russian propaganda and misinformation about Ukraine and sowing discord across Missouri, Georgia and Florida through the African People’s Socialist Party.

The indictment alleges that African People's Socialist Party Chairman Omali Yeshitela and members Penny Joanne Hess and Jesse Nevel acted as illegal agents of the Russian government without notifying the U.S. attorney general. They each face up to 10 years in prison for that charge. They also face up to five years in prison for conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents.

The indictmentalleges Russian national Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov founded the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia, a Moscow-based organization run by the Russian government, to promote pro-Russian propaganda and create influence campaigns among political groups across the country, including the African People’s Socialist Party. It also alleges Ionov tried to promote the Russian invasion of Ukraine with pro-Russian talking points. It says that Ionov would appear on video calls hosted by the party in which he likened support to Ukraine to supporting Nazis and that Yeshitela made statements supporting Russia.

“Russia’s foreign intelligence service allegedly weaponized our First Amendment rights — freedoms Russia denies its own citizens — to divide Americans and interfere in elections in the United States,” Justice Department’s National Security Division Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen said in a statement.

Omali Yeshitela, Chairman of the African People's Socialist Party, speaking at a press conference. He wears a black beret tilted to the side with a red star in the center.
Screenshot of Fox2 Stream
Omali Yeshitela at his press conference hours after his home was raided by the FBI on July 29, 2022. A federal grand jury alleges Yeshitela and members Penny Joanne Hess and Jesse Nevel acted as illegal agents of the Russian government without notifying the U.S. attorney general.

Yeshitela said in a statement that on the advice of his attorney, he could not comment on the indictment. "However, I am looking forward to my day in court," he said.

The indictment comes several months after the FBI raided the party’s Uhuru Center in south St. Louis. Agents raided the party’s St. Petersburg office as well. Yeshitela said at the time that his organization had never taken money from the Russian government.

The Uhuru Center drew attention last year after it had raised money for projects across the city, including nearly $130,000 from GoFundMe for the basketball court in the Fairground neighborhood. Yeshitela also founded the Uhuru Solidarity Movement, an anti-colonialist organization, and led a march for reparations in cities across the country in 2021.

In an interview with St. Louis on the Air last year, Yeshitela addressed the raid and acknowledged visiting Russia in the past but denied taking money from the Russian government.

“Yes, I have been to Russia, but I've also been to South Africa, I've been to Ghana, I've been to various other places in Africa, I've been to Nicaragua,” Yeshitela said then. “I've been to all kinds of places where oppressed people are organizing because Black people need not to be isolated.”

The indictment accuses Ionov and two other Russian nationals of conspiring to influence U.S. political campaigns and influence democratic elections. The three also face up to 10 years for acting as illegal agents of the Russian government.

Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.