MOSCOW - Popular Russian detective novelist Boris Akunin on Wednesday declined an invitation to meet President Vladimir Putin, saying he could not be around him while Russia jails political prisoners.
In one of his strongest ever statements, the opposition-supporting novelist said he was boycotting a Thursday event where Putin is set to meet writers to discuss government support for literature.
Russia has faced numerous accusations of politically motivated convictions of opposition activists, although it denies having political prisoners.
"While there are political prisoners in the country, I cannot be close to its ruler, even in the same building," Akunin, who is known for his period detective novels set in Russia and abroad, said on his blog.
"That would mean that I consider it possible to hear pretty talk from a person who keeps people in prison for their political convictions."
His comments prompted an angry reaction from Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, who accused Akunin of "nihilism".
"We have several representatives of literary society who... traditionally deprive themselves of the opportunity of meeting the president and asking him the questions they can't answer themselves," Peskov told the Snob.ru news website.
"Unfortunately this is a kind of social nihilism, which has nothing constructive about it."
Peskov denied that Russia has political prisoners.
"I don't understand who he means by political prisoners. Those arrested in the 'Bolotnaya' case?" he said - a reference to a May 6, 2012 protest in Moscow's Bolotnaya Square that led to the arrest of anti-Putin activists.
Russia is holding more than a dozen of the activists in pre-trial detention over the protest against Putin's return to the Kremlin for a third term.
Others are under house arrest or on the run. In October, one activist was controversially sentenced to an open-ended stay in a psychiatric hospital.
"They are not political prisoners at all," Peskov said.
"They are charged with hooliganism and violence against law enforcement officers. That has nothing to do with politics."
Thursday's meeting had already raised controversy because it is set to discuss the possible awarding of state grants for literature, in a move reminiscent of Soviet policy.
Russia has already reintroduced generous state funding of films that are approved by a government foundation, including several films glorifying Soviet heroes and war victories.
Pro-opposition poet and journalist Dmitry Bykov also turned down the invitation, telling Echo of Moscow radio: "We can somehow solve our writers' problems without government leaders."