Russia on Monday charged a respected former reporter with treason for allegedly passing state secrets to the Czech Republic, his lawyer said, as police detained journalists protesting against his arrest.
Investigators charged Ivan Safronov, a former reporter for dailies Kommersant and Vedomosti, with treason, for which he could face up to 20 years behind bars, lawyer Ivan Pavlov told AFP.
"It is an unfounded charge, he does not admit any guilt," Pavlov said.
Safronov, a 30-year-old former reporter specialising in defence and space, recently joined the national space agency as an adviser to its chief, Dmitry Rogozin.
The FSB security service detained him last week on suspicion of passing state secrets to Czech intelligence since 2012.
He has been remanded in custody for two months in Moscow's Lefortovo prison.
An AFP journalist saw police detain at least four people outside the prison on Monday as his former colleagues have held a series of pickets in his support.
OVD-Info, a website that monitors detentions at protests, said police had detained 11 people who were being taken to police stations.
Police in face masks took protesters, many holding placards and wearing T-shirts with the slogan "Free Ivan Safronov", to police buses outside Lefortovo prison.
Unusually, protesters included journalists from state media including one from Kremlin-backed television channel RT, OVD-Info said.
Gleb Cherkasov, a former deputy editor of Kommersant daily who worked with Safronov from 2010 to 2019, told AFP that Safronov was a "responsible and professional person, a trustworthy comrade, and one of the best journalists I've ever worked with".
"I absolutely don't believe in the accusations he is facing now," Cherkasov said, calling them "reprisals for his work as a journalist".
Tatiana Felgenhauer, a presenter on Echo of Moscow radio station, said she had come out to support Safronov and hoped that high-profile protests could have an effect as journalists face mounting pressure.
"The charges are getting harsher and the number of media where you can work is shrinking fast," she said.
In another unusual move, several reporters in the Kremlin press pool covering President Vladimir Putin also put out a video in support of Safronov.
Safronov's case has not prompted universal support from Kremlin critics, with leading opposition politician Alexei Navalny saying in a video blog on Friday that he was reluctant to defend Safronov since shortly before his detention he had taken up a highly paid post at a state body.
He called Safronov "a man with no moral principles" for having agreed to work for the space agency.