Hundreds arrested in Moscow during protest over Ivan Golunov

Protesters call for charges to be brought against police officers who arrested journalist

Hundreds of people have been detained in central Moscow as protesters demanded charges be brought against the police officers who planted drugs on Ivan Golunov, an investigative journalist whose arrest sparked widespread public anger.

Alexei Navalny, a prominent Kremlin critic, was among those arrested when police, some clad in riot gear, moved in on 1,500 peaceful protesters who were attempting to reach the headquarters of the interior ministry that oversees police work. The protest, which was not approved by the authorities, took place on Russia Day, a national holiday in honour of the country’s independence from the Soviet Union.

“Happy holiday”, shouted some of the demonstrators, as police seized people who had gathered around a statue of the dissident Soviet-era singer Vladimir Vysotsky.

Police said more than 200 people were arrested. OVD-info, a website that tracks arrests, said the figure was 423. A number of journalists were also taken into police custody, including an employee of the German magazine Der Spiegel.

Journalist Ivan Golunov,
Ivan Golunov, centre, speaks to the press as he leaves the interior ministry’s main investigative directorate in Moscow. Photograph: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA

Drug dealing charges against Golunov, 36, were dropped for lack of evidence on Tuesday, five days after he was arrested and, according to his lawyer, beaten in police custody. He had been facing up to 20 years in prison.

His release from house arrest on Tuesday was unexpected and followed an unprecedented display of solidarity by Russian journalists and cultural figures, as well as days of protests across Russia and abroad that appeared to take the Kremlin by surprise. The charges were seen as an attempt to halt his widely reported articles on corruption, including links between the Moscow authorities and the city’s funeral services industry.

Golunov’s release was greeted with euphoria by Russia’s beleaguered opposition, amid hopes that the development represented a watershed movement for civil society. Wednesday’s mass arrests may have dashed those hopes.

“The authorities are very much scared of the fantastic and unanimous display of solidarity in the Golunov case,” Navalny tweeted before being bundled into a police van. “So it’s important for them to destroy this.”

He later said that he was being charged with encouraging people to attend the protest.

Russia’s interior minister, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, said he had asked Vladimir Putin to dismiss two senior police officials over their handling of the Golunov case. The Kremlin said Putin had yet to make a decision.

The Investigative Committee, a powerful law-enforcement agency that answers only to the president, also said it was carrying out an investigation into the actions of the officers who detained the journalist.

As the protest was taking place, Putin was handing out state awards at a televised Kremlin event in honour of Russia Day. Among the visitors sitting on the front row was Anna Luganskaya, a journalist with Medialeaks, who was wearing a “I/We are Ivan Golunov” T-shirt.

“I realised this was a huge chance to show Vladimir Putin what I am concerned about,” she said.

Golunov did not attend Wednesday’s protest. Meduza, a Latvia-based news website he writes for, issued a statement urging people not to attend, a move that caused a split among his supporters.

“Negotiations with city hall on the issue of organising a public protest tomorrow have reached a dead end,” it said. “We suggest going out tomorrow and having a drink – and, in the meantime, fighting to receive approval for a protest in central Moscow in the coming days.”

“I really thought they wouldn’t arrest people today – I hoped so anyway,” Ilya Azar, a journalist who helped organise the protest, said as a police carried away a young woman.

Protesters also said they were rallying to draw attention to what human rights groups say is the widespread police practice of planting drugs on innocent people, as well as fabricating other evidence. The acquittal rate of people charged with criminal offences in Russia is just 0.25%, according to the Kremlin’s human rights committee.

Others said they wanted to draw attention to the plight of Kremlin opponents such as Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film-maker who is serving a 20-year sentence on terrorism charges he says are revenge for his opposition to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Some protesters wore T-shirts and carried signs in support of Yury Dmitriev, a human rights activist and historian who is facing up to 20 years in prison on controversial child pornography charges his supporters say are aimed at stopping his investigations into Stalin-era executions in Russia’s far north. A judge in Karelia cleared Dmitriev of the charges last year, but that decision was then overturned by a higher court and he was rearrested two months later.

“I hope that the Golunov case will show people that we often can’t believe what the police tell us,” said Nina, a middle-aged translator, at Wednesday’s protest. “All too often, people turn away when they hear that someone has been charged with a crime. Especially if its drugs-related.”


Marc Bennetts in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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