Reporter’s arrest sets off widespread protests in Russia
MOSCOW — The arrest of a respected investigative journalist on dubious drug charges has hit a nerve in Russia, sparking growing protests Monday and statements from a wide circle of celebrities criticizing abuse by the security services.
Supporters of the reporter, Ivan Golunov, held round-the-clock protests outside the police headquarters in central Moscow and have called for a march on the building Wednesday, which is Russia Day, the country’s national holiday.
In an extraordinary move, three important newspapers printed the same large front-page headline: “I/We are Ivan Golunov.” Golunov, who works for the Meduza online news service, is well-known for exposing corruption in Moscow’s city hall.
In addition to the headline, the three papers — Vedomosti, Kommersant, and RBC — published similar statements suggesting that Golunov was detained because of his work and demanding a transparent investigation into the police actions that led to his arrest Thursday.
“I want to live in a country where there is no fear; I don’t want to be afraid,” said Chulpan Khamatova, an actress who appeared on a video circulated online with numerous famous Russians demanding freedom for Golunov, including actors, directors, rappers, comedians, writers, journalists, and others. Khamatova had previously endorsed Vladimir Putin as a presidential candidate.
Dmitry S. Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said the president was aware of the case but there would be no comment on its merits.
“This case raised many questions,” Peskov told reporters Monday. “We see it and we take note of it, but I think it is wrong to say that there is a widespread feeling of distrust toward the law enforcement system.”
Undeterred by the protests, Russian authorities sought Monday to extend the prison term for Leonid Volkov, an opposition activist, as he was completing a 20-day sentence for helping to organize antigovernment rallies, said Ivan Zhdanov, who works with Volkov at the Anti-Corruption Foundation, which was founded by the opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
On the other hand, a court in the Russian republic of Chechnya on Monday released on parole Oyub Titiev, one of the most prominent local human rights defenders. Titiev was sentenced in March to four years in a penal colony for marijuana possession. He denied the charges as being politically motivated.
Analysts commented on the remarkable breadth of support for Golunov. That reflects Russians’ frustrations with the state within a state created by the security services, said Max Trudolyubov, a former editorial page editor at the Vedomosti daily.
“People know that they live in Russia, where things like that happen all the time,” he said. “But, suddenly, something happens that makes everyone say ‘enough is enough.’ ”
Trudolyubov said it was too soon to say where it might lead but it could eventually erode the impunity enjoyed by the security services.
“At this point it feels like you can at least dent this fortress, create holes in it,” Trudolyubov said. “The fact that the public outcry is so loud means that it matters. They won’t be able to get away with it so easily.”
That the arrest occurred in Moscow, and that Golunov, 36, was well-known around Moscow media circles as an honest, dogged, and slightly awkward reporter have probably served to amplify the case. His recent works include exposés about how control of the funeral industry shifted from criminal gangs to a monopoly by government officials; loan sharks evicting people from hundreds of apartments; and possible graft surrounding the expensive, lengthy renovation of a famous fountain.
On Friday, the day after Golunov’s arrest, police announced that he had been found in possession of large quantities of drugs and released what seemed to be pictures of his apartment that made it resemble a drug lab.
The Russian security services have a habit of filing drug charges against activists and journalists they find troublesome, sending them to jail for several years. Previous cases were in the provinces, however.
Moscow journalists pushed back immediately, pointing out that only one of the nine photographs of lab equipment and clear bags of white powder was actually taken in Golunov’s apartment. Police backed down, admitting that was true but contending that the pictures were related to a different case that might involve Golunov.
Next there was a tug-of-war over Golunov’s condition, with medics at the courthouse suggesting the reporter needed treatment for possible broken ribs and other injuries suffered during a police beating. After he was taken to a clinic and a Moscow doctor close to Putin pronounced him fit, the doctor was pilloried on social media.
On Saturday night, hundreds of supporters gathered outside the Moscow courthouse where Golunov was being arraigned, breaking out into periodic chants of “Freedom” or “Ivan.” When the judge ordered two months of house arrest, instead of being held in prison as the prosecutor requested, the crowd erupted in cheers.
It is extremely rare for any judge in a Russian court to contradict prosecutors, particularly in a case involving accusations over large quantities of drugs, so the house arrest was seen as an admission that the entire case was flawed. But Golunov could still be convicted and jailed.
Golunov and his employers said they thought he was being punished for his work. In an aside to friends in court, Golunov said he thought his story about the funeral industry might have prompted his arrest, since he received threats afterward.
By Monday, the protests had moved well beyond the fraternity of journalists and beyond Moscow as well. Demonstrations were held in numerous Russian cities and abroad.
And police seemed to be starting to roll back the case, announcing that Golunov had passed a drug test.
Even the compliant state news media cast doubt on the arrest. On Sunday night, Dmitry Kiselyov, anchor of Vesti Nedelu, the main weekly news show on state television, said some police work had been “clumsy” and investigators might have beaten the suspect. But he suggested that Golunov was a mediocre journalist and said he would receive a fair trial.
On NTV, another state channel, a news anchor said that if the drug case had been manufactured, those responsible should be punished.
Group protests without a permit are banned in Russia, so individuals scattered along the sidewalk outside police headquarters Monday holding up signs. One of them, Aleksandra Meretieva, 21, a computer science student, held up a copy of the Kommersant newspaper with the protest headline.
“This is important to all of us because this can happen to anybody,” she said. “The system is controlled by a certain group, and if the interests of this group get violated, they fight against it. People are afraid for their future and their children.”