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Russian official charged with spying says allegations relate to work as journalist

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A journalist from the RT television channel holds a poster reading "Journalists are not criminals! We are Ivan Safonov" during a protest outside the FSB headquarters in Moscow
A journalist from the RT television channel holds a poster reading "Journalists are not criminals! We are Ivan Safonov" during a protest outside the FSB headquarters in Moscow   -   Copyright  Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
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A Russian space agency employee held on suspicion of leaking secrets to the Czech Republic believes he is under arrest because of his work as a journalist, his lawyer has said.

Lawyer Oleg Eliseev said the time frames identified in the allegations against his client Ivan Safronov coincide with when he was working for two major daily newspapers.

Safronov made his name through his reporting on military issues before becoming an adviser to the Roscosmos space agency.

He was detained outside his Moscow home on Tuesday and faces 20 years in prison if found guilty.

Both Russia's FSB security service and the Kremlin said the information he allegedly provided contained important military and security details and did not relate to his work as a journalist.

But the details of Safronov's case are likely to be classified under secrecy laws, according to Russian media.

The case has become a litmus test for press freedom in Russia, with many journalists calling for Safronov's trial to be heard publicly.

A demonstration in support of journalists' rights was held outside the FSB headquarters in Moscow on Wednesday.

His lawyer Eliseev, who is preparing an appeal against his detention, told Euronews: “All information about the time interval in which some crime allegedly occurred covers the period of time when he was a journalist.”

Safronov was dismissed from the Russian daily Kommersant last year after writing an article that incorrectly predicted the Russian upper house speaker was about to leave her post.

He subsequently became an adviser to the head of the Roscosmos space agency.

Mikhail Mikhailin, a former editor-in-chief of Kommersant, said Safronov would not have had access to state secrets during his time at the newspaper.

“He wrote about the military-strategic cooperation of Russia and other countries, maybe he stepped into the way of someone somewhere," he told Euronews.

Mikhailin added that he would not have been appointed to his role at the space agency if there had been any allegations against him at the time: "When Ivan got a job at Roscosmos, they checked him several times to see if the special services had any complaints against him.

"And if Ivan was hired as adviser to Roscosmos, then probably there were no complaints against him. Or someone for some reason said nothing about it."