Russia drops charges against journalist after outcry

PHOTO: Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov smiles as he leaves a Investigative Committee building in Moscow, June 11, 2019.PlayAlexander Zemlianichenko/AP
WATCH Russia frees journalist after exceptional outcry

Russian police announced on Tuesday they are dropping charges against the investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, a stunning reversal by authorities in the face of a popular outcry over his arrest on drug charges last week.

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The abrupt turnaround by Russian authorities followed mounting pressure over Golunov's detention, which has been widely criticized by his supporters as a crude setup and has prompted an exceptional show of solidarity by the country's journalists that even spread to some pro-Kremlin commentators. There had been growing protests this week and the decision to drop the case came a day before a large demonstration was planned to take place in Moscow.

Golunov, a prominent reporter for the popular independent news site, Meduza, who has written on corruption and shady business practices among officials and organized crime, was arrested last Thursday in Moscow. Police claimed they had found bags of the drug mephedrone on Golunov's person and during a subsequent search of his home, and charged him with intention to distribute, an offense that carries a potential 10 to 20-year prison sentence.

The case, though, quickly seemed to unravel. Golunov accused the police of planting the drugs on him and then beating him up during questioning, and police later admitted that photos they had made public, which suggested Golunov had a drug lab at his home, were misleading.

On Tuesday, authorities seemed to yield to the criticism. Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev, announced in a video statement that the case against Golunov was being closed after analysis found no sign he had committed a crime.

Kolokoltsev also said that he was firing the Moscow police chief who was overseeing Golunov’s case, as well as the head of the city’s narcotics division. The officers who had arrested Golunov had been suspended and would be investigated, he said.

Golunov was released from house arrest on Tuesday. Taken first to a police station, he emerged free to a scrum of dozens of journalists and supporters chanting his name.

“I hope that no one else finds themselves in the situation that I found myself," Golunov said, looking stunned and wiping away tears. He said that would be compensation for what had happened to him and pledged to keep doing investigations.

The Investigative Committee, Russia's equivalent of the FBI, also announced it would examine the circumstances around Golunov's arrest.

It was a remarkable retreat for Russian law enforcement in the face of popular pressure. In a country where the acquittal rate in courts is less than 1%, instances of high profile cases being closed are essentially unheard of and, even in ordinary cases, charges are very difficult to have dropped.

“I’m happy, I’m crying. We understand completely that this happened thanks to the efforts of hundreds and thousands of people. Huge gratitude to all of them,” Galina Timchenko, the general director of Meduza, told the liberal channel, TV Rain. "We all together have done the unbelievable: stopped the criminal prosecution of an innocent person."

Independent journalists and publications in Russia face intense pressure and frequent harassment in an environment where the government dominates the media.

The scale and breadth of support for an independent journalist that Golunov has attracted were almost unheard of for today’s Russia. The country’s three leading independent newspapers on Tuesday ran identical front pages in support of Golunov. Even some state media journalists signed a letter calling for him to be freed. Celebrities, including those who normally remain outside politics, posted messages in support.

In Moscow and other cities, hundreds of protesters have taken part in small demonstrations all week calling for Golunov's release. Limited by stringent rules that forbid unauthorized public demonstrations, people had been queuing up to take part in one-man pickets outside police stations, leading to absurd scenes where police were filmed using measuring tapes to ensure the protests could be classified as solitary.

Initially, the Kremlin had suggested it favored the prosecution, pointing to the discredited photos as proof there may be grounds for the case. But as criticism mounted and the police's apparent lack of evidence seemed to be becoming embarrassingly obvious, there were signs that the Kremlin was changing course, and prominent pro-government anchors started to criticize the police's handling of the case.

President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary on Monday set the tone, saying that "mistakes" are sometimes made—an admission almost never heard from top Russian officials. By Tuesday, in a remarkable turn, the main state rolling news channel, Russia 24, was covering Golunov's release live.

Most Russian observers believe the Kremlin had no direct stake in Golunov’s arrest, which most suspected had been brought about by mid-level officials or others involved in regional rackets that he most frequently wrote about. The prominent anti-corruption campaigner, Alexey Navalny, published a report on Tuesday in which he claimed an FSB officer involved in a corrupt attempt to take over a funeral business had targeted Golunov for investigating it.

But the case struck a nerve in Russia as emblematic of the lawlessness and corruption in the country’s law enforcement and officials that has flourished under Putin and it rapidly became a headache of national significance for the Kremlin. The case's closure was celebrated by many as unexpected evidence that Russia's civil society has the strength to force a response from authorities and as a victory over official unaccountability.

"When the authorities admit their mistakes, admit the mistakes of the law enforcement officials and correct them, that’s very good because it shows that the government is reasonable,” Alexei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of the influential liberal station, Echo of Moscow, told the Interfax news agency.

Navalny, Russia's most prominent opposition leader, tweeted that Golunov's release "was an inspiring and motivating example of what can be achieved by simple solidarity with the downtrodden."

Reflecting the extraordinary nature of the event, the celebration even came from inside government, as pro-Kremlin politicians swiftly began denouncing the police and focusing blame onto them. On Facebook, Russia’s normally aggressive foreign ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, wrote that it was "the best day" and that she was "moved to tears."

In a joint statement, Meduza's CEO, Timchenko and four other prominent journalists pledged they would now investigate and publish who had ordered Golunov's arrest.

"This is just the beginning, there is a lot of work ahead of us," they wrote.