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Russian investigative journalist freed after days of protests

Ivan Golunov, a journalist who worked for the independent website Meduza, sat in a cage in a court room in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, June 8, 2019.
Ivan Golunov, a journalist who worked for the independent website Meduza, sat in a cage in a court room in Moscow, Russia, Saturday, June 8, 2019.(Dmitry Serebryakov/Associated Press)

MOSCOW — Russian authorities dropped charges Tuesday against an investigative reporter whose arrest last week sparked protests and an unprecedented wave of media solidarity, with even pro-Kremlin outlets expressing doubt over the actions by police.

The announcement by Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev represented a stunning reversal by Russia’s powerful security agencies. It marked a rare bow to public outrage that underscored the Kremlin’s sensitivity to shifts in public opinion.

And it was an unexpected victory for a journalism community that has seen media freedom recede for two decades in Russia.

Forensic tests found no proof that the journalist, Ivan Golunov, committed drug-related crimes, Kolokoltsev said. Charges will be dropped and Golunov will be freed from house arrest, he added.

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The police officers involved in Golunov’s arrest will be investigated, Kolokoltsev said. He called for the dismissal of two senior Moscow police officials, including the drug enforcement chief.

‘‘I believe that every citizen’s rights must be protected, no matter their professional affiliation,’’ he said.

Golunov writes for Meduza, a popular Russian-language news outlet based in Latvia that often publishes stories critical of the Russian government.

The uproar over his arrest cut to the heart of the tug of war over influence in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

The security services have long appeared dominant, wielding the law to overpower business rivals and silence activists. But in detaining a respected and well-liked journalist, they seemed to have gone too far — suggesting that nearly two decades into Putin’s rule, there are still limits to state power.

‘‘Russia’s Investigative Committee will determine the circumstances related to the unfounded detention of a journalist and the violation of his rights,’’ the government’s top investigative body declared.

When Golunov was formally charged Saturday with drug possession with intent to sell, it appeared that the police were preparing to lock up a journalist who had spotlighted official corruption.

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The charges against him were so serious that, given the typical Russian practice, Golunov seemed likely to spend months in jail ahead of a trial in which prosecutors would almost surely get their way.

Golunov faced a possible sentence of 10 years or more. Framing people for drug-related crimes is a common way for influential figures across Russia to sideline opponents, rights activists claim.

But the evidence seemed so flimsy that even some staunchly pro-Kremlin television journalists rallied to Golunov’s defense. Celebrities released videos calling for his freedom.

Hundreds of journalists and supporters gathered outside the courthouse Saturday, their chants heard inside the courtroom. Protesters picketed the Moscow police headquarters, and major newspapers ran matching headlines that read: ‘‘I/We Are Ivan Golunov.’’

Meduza editor Ivan Kolpakov said Golunov may have been targeted because of an unpublished article. Golunov filed a draft of the story, Kolpakov said, just hours before being detained.

Work on the article will now continue, Meduza said after the charges were dropped.