Russian police drop drug charges against journalist after outcry

Ivan Golunov

MOSCOW — Russian police said on Tuesday they would drop drug charges against an investigative journalist and free him from house arrest, in a rare climb-down by law enforcement following a public outcry.

Ivan Golunov is a reporter with independent media outlet Meduza, which is based in EU-member Latvia. He was arrested last week on charges supporters said were trumped up to punish him for his investigative work.

"Today he will be released from house arrest and charges lifted," Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev said in a statement.

Kolokoltsev said he would seek President Vladimir Putin's permission to sack the head of a Moscow police department and another senior official in charge of drug control in the capital.

The case sparked outrage in Russia and abroad over what critics slammed as the impunity and corruption of law enforcement agencies.

Brussels welcomed the surprise news, with a European Commission spokesperson calling it a "positive outcome", but demanding a probe into reports police beat Golunov in detention.

Journalists and activists reacted with joy as thousands of supporters planned to rally in Moscow after days of smaller demonstrations.

Meduza editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov said

"This is victory...I'm crying," said Meduza editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny called it "an inspiring and motivating example of what simple solidarity...can achieve".

Journalists gathered outside a Moscow police building where Golunov, aged 36, was due to emerge Tuesday evening included his Meduza colleague Ilya Zhegulev.

"An unbelievable event has happened," the reporter said. "Even the most optimistic didn't believe this would happen, and happen so quickly."

Golunov had been charged with attempting to deal a "large amount" of drugs and was placed under house arrest at the weekend, facing up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

The reporter said he was beaten in detention while his lawyers insisted drugs had been planted on him.

Moscow police admitted photographs published on its website describing drug paraphernalia found at a crime scene were not taken at Golunov's flat.

The officers who arrested Golunov last week have been suspended pending an investigation, Kolokoltsev said.

"I believe that irrespective of any citizen's professional activities his rights should always be protected," the minister added.

After Golunov's arrest, hundreds protested outside a court and the Moscow police headquarters.

Supporters had organized a march in Moscow for Wednesday to call for his freedom, with nearly 24,000 people replying as attending or interested on Facebook.

The international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders hailed what it called the "historic mobilization of the Russian civil society".

"Now those who tried to set him up must be judged," the NGO wrote on Twitter.

"We are happy that the authorities listened to society," the editorial team of Meduza and several other prominent journalists said in a statement. "This is just the beginning, a lot of work lies ahead."

In an unprecedented gesture of solidarity, major newspapers Kommersant, Vedomosti and RBK published the same front page on Monday under the headline "I am/we are Ivan Golunov" in giant letters.

Even some staunchly pro-Kremlin television journalists expressed support for the independent reporter.

Golunov's lawyers argued that numerous legal violations accompanied the journalist's arrest.

Golunov has investigated everything from Russia's shady funeral industry to corruption at Moscow city hall.

His release comes a month after days of protests forced authorities to backtrack over plans to build a controversial new cathedral in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg.

During his two decades in power, Putin has silenced most of his critics and sought to muzzle the media.

The few opposition and independent media that still operate in Russia are under huge pressure, Kremlin critics say.

The Meduza website is based in Latvia to circumvent censorship, but some of its journalists live in Russia. — AFP