The Kremlin has denied launching a wave of repression against protesters and journalists during rallies in support of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, as Moscow detention centres struggled to cope with the number of people arrested.
Independent monitors say police have detained more than 10,000 people at protests calling for the release of Mr Navalny, who was imprisoned on Tuesday in a case that the European Union and United States see as politically motivated.
"There is no repression. There are measures taken by the police... against participants in unsanctioned rallies," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday, as photos emerged of dilapidated cells packed with detainees – many of whom were arrested for breaking social-distancing restrictions while protesting.
“There are more detainees than these cells can handle. And there are more detainees than can be processed in a short time. So, unfortunately, such consequences arise,” Mr Peskov added.
Sergei Smirnov, chief editor of the independent MediaZona news website, said he was being held with 27 other people in a cell designed for eight at a centre for migrants near Moscow.
He was jailed for 25 days for retweeting a joke about his resemblance to a rock singer who appeared on a notice about a pro-Navalny protest; even though he did not even attend the rally, he was found guilty of calling for an unsanctioned march.
Several news outlets issued statements complaining about the case and denouncing the often-violent arrest of many journalists at recent demonstrations.
"Like staff at many other Russian media, we consider the arrest of Sergei Smirnov to be pressure on MediaZona, and an attempt to frighten other journalists... Beatings and mass arrests should not become the norm in our country," said the Kommersant newspaper.
Tikhon Dzyadko, editor-in-chief of the Dozhd television channel, said: "Journalists have been detained en masse – more than 100 people... This is being done to prevent the media from covering what is happening at the protests. Police officers who detain journalists for no reason should be held accountable."
Mr Navalny was jailed for two years and eight months for allegedly breaking his parole terms by failing to keep in touch with the Russian prison authorities while recovering abroad from a near-fatal poisoning in Siberia last August.
He accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of ordering the nerve-agent attack and his imprisonment in connection with a 2014 case that the European Court of Human Rights found to be "arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable".
EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell is expected to discuss Russia's treatment of Mr Navalny, civil society and independent media during talks in Moscow on Friday.
“We hope nothing so stupid will happen as linking prospects for Russia-EU relations to the case of one occupant of a detention centre,” Mr Peskov said earlier this week.