Ivan Golunov: Russian police drop charges against journalist

Anti-corruption reporter will not face drugs charges because of lack of evidence

Russian authorities have dropped all charges of drug dealing against Ivan Golunov, and released the investigative reporter whose arrest caused a major public outcry.

Vladimir Kolokoltsev, the interior minister, said the decision had been taken because of a lack of evidence to support the controversial charges, which were widely viewed as an attempt to silence the journalist’s hard-hitting exposes of corruption.

Golunov, who said police planted the drugs on him, had faced up to 20 years in prison. He was beaten in custody and denied access to a lawyer for over 12 hours.

“I still can’t believe in my release,” said a smiling Golunov, 36, after leaving an interior ministry office, where he was formally cleared of the charges. He was met by cheering journalists and well-wishers. “I need some time to get my breath back.”

He said he was unlikely to claim compensation for the fraudulent charges brought against him by police: “Compensation for emotional distress would be if charges like these are never brought against anyone again.”

Golunov also insisted he would continue working as a journalist, but said he would not be investigating his own case. “I would have a conflict of interests.”

Kolokoltsev said he would ask Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, to dismiss Andrei Puchkov, the police chief for western Moscow, where Golunov was detained, and Yuri Devyatkin, the head of the city’s anti-narcotics department, over the police’s handing of the case.

There was euphoria among independent Russian journalists as the news broke. “This is a victory! We are happy! I’m crying!” Ivan Kolpakov, the editor of Meduza, the Latvia-based news website where Golunov works, wrote on Facebook.

“Together we did something incredible: stopped the criminal persecution of an innocent person,” Meduza said in a statement. “[But] this is just the start – there is a lot of work ahead to make sure this never happens to anyone again.”

The developments came after an unprecedented display of solidarity from Russian journalists and cultural figures that piled massive pressure on the Kremlin. Three major Russian newspapers on Monday ran near-identical front pages in defence of the journalist, whose arrest was seen as a watershed moment for independent media in Russia.

Thousands of people were due to defy a police ban on unsanctioned protests to rally against Golunov’s arrests in Moscow on Wednesday. Protests had previously taken place in Moscow and other Russian cities, as well as outside Russian embassies in Europe and the United States.

The first major indication that Golunov’s release was imminent came earlier on Tuesday when Valentina Matviyenko, the speaker of the Russian parliament’s upper house and a longtime ally of Putin, lashed out at the police’s handling of the case.

“This a very bad story,” she said. “There are many questions that the public must receive clear and intelligible answers to. This is either unprofessionalism, recklessness or a provocation.”

Matviyenko, who is nominally the third most powerful politician in Russia, said the case had been taken under the personal control of Yuri Chaika, the prosecutor general.

The Kremlin admitted on Monday that mistakes had possibly been made in the handling of the case.

The police’s case against Golunov started to collapse almost as soon as it was brought. A series of forensic tests failed to reveal traces of drugs in either Golunov’s urine or on his fingers.

Shortly after his arrest, police published photographs that they said showed a drug lab at his rented flat. The images were swiftly deleted from the interior ministry’s website after a police spokesman admitted they had been taken at a different location and bore no relation to the charges against the journalist.

Police described the incident as “a small mix-up”. Human rights groups said police in Russia often plant drugs on suspects.

Golunov’s arrest was condemned by figures across a wide spectrum of Russian society, including Kremlin-loyal media. Dozens of journalists from state news agencies signed an open letter calling for the charges against him to be dismissed. Presenters on Channel One, state media’s flagship channel, also demanded a transparent investigation into the case. There were unconfirmed reports, however, that Kremlin officials had permitted state media to support the journalist to lay the groundwork for the rare about-face by the authorities.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, denied media reports that the government was seeking to settle the Golunov case before Putin’s annual question-and-answer show with the public on 20 June, where he would have almost certainly faced awkward questions about the journalist’s treatment.

Before the police backed down, nearly 25,000 people had signed up to a Facebook page expressing their intention to take part in a protest march on Wednesday in solidarity with Golunov.


Marc Bennetts in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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