Ilya Azar

© 2019 Vlad Dokshin, Novaya Gazeta

Last night, at around 9 p.m., Ilya Azar – a journalist and one of the leaders of the recent Moscow protests – put his toddler to bed and went out to the stairway for a cigarette. Three police officers arrived suddenly to detain him. Azar, wearing sweats and slippers, told the police his 22-month-old daughter was in the apartment and asked to wait for his wife to get home. The officers consulted their superiors by phone, and then told him they had to leave immediately. Azar called his wife, Ekaterina Kuznetsova, explained the situation, and, despite pleading with the police to wait, was taken away. Kuznetsova arrived about 30 minutes later, at wits’ end, to find “the apartment unlocked and the child sleeping peacefully … all alone.”

The recent protests were triggered by the exclusion of independent candidates from the city legislature elections on September 8. To stifle the protests, the government launched a broad crackdown, with tactics ranging from detaining staggering numbers of peaceful protesters and bystanders, some brutally, to opening major criminal investigations, including on far-fetched mass rioting allegations, and carrying out searches and interrogations of the excluded candidates and their most active supporters and slapping them with repeated temporary arrest.

The case of Azar and his family is a new low in this litany of harassment.

As a wave of indignation erupted on social media and dozens of journalists rushed to the police station where Azar was held, the authorities changed course and released him just past midnight, pending a court hearing on charges of repeatedly violating the regulations on public gatherings. This administrative offense can land Azar in jail for up to 30 days but can’t justify the late-night rush to detain him.

In August, the prosecutor’s office moved to strip two couples of their parental rights because they brought their young children to the protests, claiming they neglected parental duties by exposing children to potential harm. On September 2, two district courts in Moscow ruled against removing the children from their respective families but issued warnings to both sets of parents, sending a chilling signal to politically active parents across the country, no doubt the government’s intent.

Azar’s police ordeal makes it painfully clear authorities will use child protection as a cynical tool to punish parents but won’t think twice about abandoning a baby to potential harm when acting to suppress a critic.