Sat, 11 Jul 2020

MOSCOW -- A Moscow district court has sentenced a prominent Russian journalist to 15 days in jail, while police detained several other journalists who were rallying in his support.

Ilya Azar, a 35-year-old local legislator and journalist for the independent Novaya gazeta newspaper, was sentenced on May 25 after being found guilty of repeatedly violating Russia's strict protest laws.

According to OVD-Info, an independent website tracking detentions at political protests, six journalists who had gathered at Moscow police headquarters in solidarity with Azar were detained.

They were holding single-person pickets, which are allowed under Russian law, reports said.

Those confirmed as being detained by police included Sergei Smirnov, editor in chief of the online news outlet Mediazona, and Tatyana Felgengauer, a journalist with the radio station Ekho Moskvy.

Azar was arrested on May 26 during a one-person protest in support of activist Vladimir Vorontsov, who has worked to expose violations within Russia's law enforcement agencies.

Vorontsov, a former police officer, was arrested in early May on extortion charges. He was later accused of also illegally distributing pornography.

Vorontsov has denied the charges, saying police are seeking to punish him for his activism.

Police said on May 26 that Azar was detained for violating a ban on rallies during Moscow's citywide lockdown aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

Azar's arrest sparked outrage among his supporters, who said it would be dangerous to hold the journalist in jail for two weeks during the coronavirus pandemic.

'Azar had every right to hold this rally according to law, the constitution, and common sense,' opposition figure Aleksei Navalny wrote on Twitter on May 28.

'None of these three things exists in Russia right now,' Navalny added.

Calling Azar's detention a "cowardly act," Amnesty International accused the authorities of "crushing activism and impinging on human rights to silence critics."

"In the midst of a global pandemic, the government is enforcing muzzles instead of protective masks, and solely for its own protection," Natalia Zviagina, the London-based watchdog's Russia director, said in a statement.

"Not only has Ilya Azar been arrested simply for exercising his right to peaceful assembly, but he has been thrown into a crowded cell where he, and others like him, are at risk of contracting COVID-19,' Zviagina said.

The OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Harlem Desir, said he was 'alarmed' by the detention of the journalists who were rallying in support of Azar, and called for their immediate release.

With reporting by AFP and Interfax

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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