The New-York based NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Russian government on Friday to release the dozens of journalists and peaceful protesters arrested over the past week and demanded they drop all charges against them.
Russian police have arrested dozens of journalists and campaigners since July 3 for participating in protests demanding an end to the crackdown on the free press and wider repression by the Putin regime. According to HRW’s Russia researcher Damelya Aitkhozhina, Russian authorities used the excuse of protesters violating social distancing rules as a pretense to arrest them.
“Independent reporters in Russia have been under attack for years, with the recent criminal prosecutions taking the repression to a new level,” the statement read. “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.”
She added that instead of allowing the protest to take place peacefully, police detained participants “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.”
The protests were held in solidarity with journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva, who was this month found guilty of “justifying terrorism” after she wrote a column linking a recent suicide bombing to the country’s tense political climate. She was ordered to pay a fine of 500,000 rubles (around $6,950).
Two other journalists were also detained in the western Russian city of Pskov, where Prokopyeva’s trial was held. Most of those charged will face either a fine or up to 40 hours of community service.
Four Jehovah’s Witnesses were detained on Thursday in southern Russia on charges of “extremism.” The Kremlin considers the Christian sect a dangerous organization, persecuting them for decades. The four individuals, aged between 38 and 47, were reported “elders” that had continued to congregate in the southern city of Astrakhan in defiance of a government ban on the sect back in 2017.
“Not wanting to be exposed by law enforcement, the suspects used secrecy measures, including using video conferencing,” Russia’s Investigative Committee said in a statement. If found guilty, they could face up to 10 years in prison.
A spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jarrod Lopes, told Breitbart News in a statement that officials were showing a “blatant disregard for their country’s own Constitution, which guarantees religious freedom for all Russian citizens.”
“The three men were subsequently ordered to pretrial detention, while Olga was put under house arrest. All four remain under those restrictions,” said Lopes. “Russian authorities have raided nearly 1,000 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses since the 2017 ban—189 have been raided this year alone. The police often post video footage of these raids in an attempt to frame Jehovah’s Witnesses as dangerous.”