Journalist Ilya Azar is seen in Moscow, Russia, on June 7, 2020. Azar was recently arrested and sentenced to 15 days in detention for allegedly organizing illegal protests. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Russian journalist Ilya Azar sentenced to 15 days for allegedly organizing protests

On March 3, 2021, the Tverskoy District Court in Moscow sentenced Ilya Azar, a correspondent for the liberal Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, to 15 days of detention and a fine of 150,000 rubles (US$2,014) for allegedly organizing illegal protests on Facebook, according to news reports and a statement from his employer.

On March 5, the Moscow City Court rejected Azar’s appeal and said it would keep him in custody to serve his detention, according to news reports.

Ilya Azar is journalist and also a legislator in Moscow’s Khamovniki district, according to those reports; he frequently posts messages in support of Russian protest movements on his personal Facebook page, where he has about 28,000 followers.

The court ruled that two of Azar’s posts on his personal Facebook page—one from March 2020, supporting a rally against constitutional amendments to allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power, and another from July, which has since been taken down, about a protest organized by a local journalists’ union against arrest of journalist Ivan Safronov—violated laws banning the organizing of unauthorized protests, according to news reports. The court issued the fine in response to the March post, and the detention in response to the July post, according to those reports. 

Novaya Gazeta wrote in its statement that it strongly disagreed with the decision, and protested the court’s refusal to recognize any of Azar’s petitions in the case. 

Azar’s lawyer, Leonid Solovyov, told the independent Dozhd TV station that he did not expect such a strict verdict over old Facebook posts. Solovyov told CPJ that it was “impossible to draw a clear line between journalism and activism in this case.”

Police first filed Azar’s case on February 24, 2021, but the Tverskoy District Court rejected the case for lack of evidence; police resubmitted the case on March 3 and the court ruled in their favor, according to reports.

Azar has covered topics that are sensitive in Russia, including unrest in the Republic of Ingushetia and the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In October 2020, Armenian authorities stripped Azar of his accreditation to cover that conflict, as CPJ documented at the time.

An official in the Moscow City Court told CPJ via phone that the court does not comment on its decisions. CPJ also called Moscow city prosecutor’s office for comment, but no one answered.

Previously, Azar served 10 days in detention in May and June 2020 after the Tverskoy court convicted him of illegally organizing protests, according to news reports from the time.