Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called for Russia to drop charges against dozens of Russian journalists facing fines or detention for peacefully protesting in solidarity with colleagues who are being criminally prosecuted for their work.
The New York-based watchdog on July 10 urged the Russian authorities to immediately drop the charges against the protesters and other journalists, and end their repression of freedom of expression and peaceful protests.
"Independent reporters in Russia have been under attack for years, with the recent criminal prosecutions taking the repression to a new level," Damelya Aitkhozhina, Russia researcher at HRW, said in a statement.
In most cases, police invoked rules on public assembly as grounds for arrest, according to HRW. In several cases, they also invoked public-health rules that had been introduced to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
"The police falsely claimed that some of the protesters were violating these rules, yet kept most of the detained protesters in overcrowded, poorly ventilated police vehicles where they could not practice social distancing," the HRW statement said.
Aitkhozhina said that instead of fulfilling their obligation to allow people to protest peacefully, the authorities had detained them "under the abusive and restrictive rules on public assembly and under the guise of protecting public health, while exposing them to risk of infection in custody."
On July 3, 17 people were detained outside of Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters in Moscow as they protested the prosecution of Svetlana Prokopyeva in a case widely criticized as an attack on freedom of speech.
The majority of those detained were journalists.
The next day, two journalists were held in the western Russian city of Pskov, where Prokopyeva's trial took place.
Twenty-eight journalists and activists were also detained outside the FSB building in Moscow on July 7 while protesting against the treason charges brought against Ivan Safronov, a former investigative reporter.
All three protests were entirely peaceful and the demonstrators held single-person pickets, distancing themselves from each other, HRW said.
Under the law, a protester is allowed to hold a solitary picket without notifying the authorities in advance.
Protesters in Moscow said that at any given time only one person stood with a placard, and in Pskov the two protesters complied with the 50-meter distance requirement to qualify as a solitary protest.
HRW said the protesters have been released on condition they report to police on an assigned date to process the administrative charges against them.
Most detainees in Moscow face charges of violating public-assembly regulations, which carries a maximum 20,000-ruble ($280) fine or up to 40 hours of community service.
At least two of those detained in the capital -- including Ilya Azar, a journalist who also serves on a Moscow district council -- face a maximum 300,000-ruble ($4,200) fine or up to 200 hours of community service, or 30 days in jail for a repeated public assembly violation.
At least one protester in Moscow and both journalists detained in Pskov are accused of failing to comply with social-distancing measures and face a fine of up to 30,000 rubles ($420).