Moscow authorities arrested eight Russian journalists after they began protesting a jail sentence for a colleague. Human rights groups claim police are using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to stifle protests.
Eight prominent Russian journalists were arrested in the center of Moscow on Thursday for staging protests to support their jailed colleague Ilya Azar.
Azar, a 35-year-old councilor and journalist at the award-winning independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was sentenced earlier in the day to 15 days in prison for repeatedly violating protest law.
The eight arrested journalists were taking part in single pickets — the only form of protest allowed without permission — to say it was dangerous to jail Azar during the COVID-19 pandemic.
All of them were taken to the local police station in Moscow's Tverskoy district before being released, although several were charged with violating protest and self-isolation regulations.
Arrested journalists are well-known
Chief editor of the online portal Mediazona Sergey Smirnov and journalists from the radio station Echo of Moscow, Tatyana Felgenhauer and Alexander Plushchev, were detained immediately after they started their protest action outside the Interior Ministry's department for Moscow, just a stone's throw away from the Kremlin.
Plushchev is also a guest columnist for DW's Russian-language service. Felgenhauer was stabbed in the neck during an attack on her newsroom in 2017.
Later in the day police also arrested independent channel TV Rain presenter Mikhail Fishman, journalist Ilya Vasyunin, photographer Viktoria Ivleva, the chief editor of an online portal about social problems Anastasia Lotaryova and writer Alisa Ganiyeva.
OSCE demands immediate release of the detained journalists
Multiple international organizations spoke out after news of the arrests broke. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) condemned the Moscow authorities for arresting the journalists.
The OSCE'S representative for media freedom Harlem Desir called for their immediate release in a tweet.
Amnesty International said Russia should stop using the COVID-19 pandemic to muzzle activists.
"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," said Natalia Zviagina, the watchdog's Russia director.
In response to the arrests, lawyers with the human rights organization Agora wrote to their followers in the popular messaging app Telegram that they were ready to defend anyone who is detained while staging single pickets.
Azar too conducted single picket protests
Azar is one of the most prominent Russian journalists and a municipal deputy in Moscow's Khamovniki district. He was detained on May 26 for staging a single picket protest of the arrest of Vladimir Vorontsov, a former police officer and founder of a Telegram channel exposing abuses in Russia's law-enforcement system.
Vorontsov was arrested in Moscow in early May on extortion charges.
Russia has the world's third-highest number of conformed COVID-19 cases at over 379,000, behind only the United States and Brazil.