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Ivan Safronov (right) and lawyer Ivan Pavlov appear at a hearing at a Moscow's court in July 2020.

Human rights and media-freedom watchdogs are calling on Russia to stop prosecuting media lawyers and allow reporters to receive proper legal assistance as the authorities are "stepping up their harassment" of journalists via the controversial "foreign agents" law.

Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued the pleas this week after one of the lawyers defending Ivan Safronov, a jailed investigative reporter charged with treason, fled Russia late last month.

Yevgeny Smirnov fled to Georgia after the Leningrad regional bar association initiated disciplinary proceedings against him at the behest of the Federal Security Service (FSB).

Smirnov, who is accused of failing to be present for six investigative procedures without a valid reason, is the second lawyer defending Safronov to flee Russia in the past three months.

Ivan Pavlov also left to Georgia in September after the authorities opened a case against him earlier this year for allegedly disclosing classified information about the Safronov investigation -- an allegation he denies.

Amnesty International on December 1 expressed deep concern about the "unprecedented pressure" placed by the authorities on Pavlov and Smirnov, and about "the continuing unlawful pressure" exerted on Safronov and the conditions of his pretrial detention.

"The actions of the Russian authorities violate the rights to fair trial, freedom of expression, and freedom of association, as well as are entirely inconsistent with the obligations to protect human rights defenders," the London-based human rights group said in a statement.

Safronov was arrested and charged with high treason in July 2020. He is accused of passing secret information to the Czech Republic, a university in Switzerland, and Germany's intelligence service.

A former adviser to the head of Russian space agency Roskosmos and a onetime journalist, he has rejected the accusations against him and many of his supporters have held pickets demanding his release.

A wanted notice has been issued for Pavlov, who headed the St. Petersburg-based legal-defense organization Komanda 29, and he was placed on the "foreign agents" list in early November along with four former colleagues.

The coalition of lawyers and journalists was dissolved in July over its alleged links to a Czech nongovernmental organization branded by the Russian authorities as "undesirable."

"These proceedings and this use of the 'foreign agents' label against media lawyers is designed solely to put additional pressure on the journalists they defend, to isolate these journalists, and to deter those who could assist them," Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF's Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, said in a statement on December 3.

Cavelier urged the Leningrad regional bar association and the Russian Justice Ministry "not to yield to the FSB's pressure and to drop all the baseless proceedings against lawyers who defend journalists, so that they can practice their profession in the manner prescribed by the law."

The Russian authorities a year ago began to place media outlets and journalists on the "foreign agents" list, and are now targeting lawyers, the Paris-based group said, noting that the head of the Mass Media Defense Center, a source of expertise and legal assistance for media in difficulty, became the first lawyer to be placed on the register in October.

When it was first promulgated in 2012, the "foreign agents" law originally targeted organizations that receive foreign funding, and which the government deems to be engaged in political activity. It has since been amended repeatedly and increasingly used to target media outlets and individual journalists and bloggers.

The law requires targeted organizations to be registered, to identify themselves as "foreign agents," and to submit to audits.

The designation also restricts other media from citing a "foreign agent" organization without including a disclaimer.

According to RSF, the wording of the legislation "has become so vague that it is now easy for the authorities to use it against anyone they want to silence."

The law is used "to intimidate not only journalists and sources but also the readers and advertisers of a media outlet placed on the list, with the aim of making the outlet gradually disappear," the group said.

On December 3, Russia's Justice Ministry labeled four current and former RFE/RL journalists as "foreign agents," adding their names to a list of about 100 media entities and journalists.

The regime of President Vladimir Putin "is escalating its campaign against journalists who dare to report the facts inside Russia's own borders," RFE/RL President Jamie Fly said.

Tofiq Yaqublu, 60, said police beat him while demanding that he say on camera that he would stop criticizing Azerbaijan's leadership.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling on Azerbaijan to conduct a "prompt, impartial, and thorough" investigation into the violent dispersal of a peaceful protest by police in Baku earlier this week, and the "horrific" beating of an opposition politician and vocal government critic while in detention.

"Azerbaijani authorities have yet again demonstrated brazen contempt for people's right to hold peaceful protests and used violence to quash dissent," Giorgi Gogia, associate Europe and Central Asia director at the New York-based human rights watchdog, said in a statement on December 3, two days after police detained dozens of protesters gathered in central Baku.

In a tweet on December 2, the U.S. Embassy in Baku expressed deep concern about the violence against the protesters, and said it supported "peaceful assembly and the freedom of expression, as enshrined in Azerbaijan’s constitution."

Among those detained during the December 1 rally was a leading member of the opposition Musavat Party, Tofiq Yaqublu, who sustained multiple injuries while in police custody.

Yaqublu, 60, said police beat him while demanding that he say on camera that he would stop criticizing Azerbaijan's leadership.

'I Felt I Was Dying': Azerbaijani Activist Blames Police For Violent Beating
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"Yaqublu's horrific mistreatment was an attack on both an individual and the right to peaceful assembly," Gogia said. "Given Azerbaijan's poor record of addressing police abuses, the authorities need to ensure an effective, impartial investigation and hold to account those responsible."

The Azerbaijani government has been widely accused of human rights abuses, including torture and arbitrary detention.

The participants at the December 1 rally demanded the release of opposition activist Saleh Rustamli, who is serving a seven-year prison sentence on what HRW called "spurious" money-laundering charges.

Rustamli has been on a hunger strike since November 6, after parliament adopted an amnesty bill that is expected to release 3,000 prisoners but did not apply to his case.

Police cordoned off areas of Baku's center ahead of the protest, but several dozen protesters managed to make their way to the city center, chanting "Free Saleh Rustamli."

Police and security officials in civilian clothes immediately intervened and "forcibly restrained protesters, twisting their arms, and violently dragging them," including Yaqublu, to police vehicles, HRW said.

About 40 demonstrators were rounded up, the group said, adding that most of them were released shortly thereafter in the outskirts of the capital.

At least five were sentenced by courts to up to 30 days of administrative detention.

Appearing in a video after his release, Yaqublu was badly bruised and said he was nearly suffocated by officers.

Yaqublu told RFE/RL he had officially filed a complaint at the Prosecutor-General's Office.

The Interior Ministry has denied that police beat the opposition politician or subjected him to any pressure, but said that Yaqublu's allegations will be investigated.

Opponents of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Western countries, and international human rights groups say his government has persistently persecuted critics, political foes, independent media outlets, and civic activists.

Aliyev, who has ruled the country of almost 10 million people since shortly before the death of his father and predecessor, Heydar Aliyev, in 2003, has shrugged off the criticism.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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