Russian police abruptly dropped drugs charges against a journalist in the face of public anger after accusations he was framed by cops over his work.
In a rare U-turn by the authorities the case against Ivan Golunov was dropped on Tuesday amid accusation he was framed.
His supporters threatened to stage a mass protest in the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg until he was released.
The 36-year-old investigative journalist known for exposing corruption among Moscow city officials, was detained by police on Thursday last week and accused of serious drug offences, which he flatly denied.
He was stopped by police on a Moscow street and taken into custody, where his defence team claimed he was beaten and denied a lawyer for more than 12 hours.
Golunov’s lawyer previously said Golunov was beaten so badly by police he was left with a concussion and broken ribs.
Speaking outside police headquarters, a shy and shocked-looking Golunov said he still couldn’t believe he was cleared so quickly.
He said: ‘I will keep doing investigations to justify the trust of all those who supported me.’
Russian journalists critical of authorities have led a dangerous existence since the 1990s – sometimes threatened, physically attacked, and even murdered for their work.
But the crude way supporters said Golunov was set up and detained triggered an unusual show of media unity and an uncharacteristically swift response from authorities nervous about social unrest at a time when President Vladimir Putin already faces disquiet over living standards.
Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev said in a statement that the criminal case against Golunov was being dropped due to a lack of evidence of any wrongdoing on his part.
He said the journalist would be freed from house arrest later on Tuesday.
Some police officers involved in the case were being temporarily removed from duty pending an investigation, he said, adding that he planned to ask Putin to dismiss other more senior police personnel.
‘I believe that the rights of every citizen, regardless of his profession, must be protected,’ said Kolokoltsev.
The climb-down prompted joy from Golunov’s supporters.
While working for the independent website Meduza, Golunov covered unscrupulous lenders evicting people from their residences and an organisation’s alleged attempts to take over the Russian funeral business.
Suspicions that Golunov may have been set up have been bolstered by an array of misinformation on the case.
Russian state TV reported Sunday that authorities found Golunov intoxicated when they arrived at his home to arrest him. But it later said a medical report showed no evidence of his intoxication.
When police announced the arrest Friday, they released photographs showing bags containing a white substance and big empty bottles suggestive of a makeshift drug lab. They later said the photos were published in error.
On Sunday, state news channel Rossiya-24 broadcast a man it identified as a police official saying the images were from a separate investigation.
Galina Timchenko, general director of online news portal Meduza where Golunov works, told the Interfax news agency: ‘I am happy, I’m crying. We understand perfectly that this happened thanks to the efforts of hundreds and thousands of people. Huge gratitude to all of them.’
And opposition politician Alexei Navalny, who had condemned Golunov’s treatment, wrote: ‘Yipee! The criminal case against Golunov has been dropped.
Congratulations! This is just fantastic news. It’s an inspiring and motivating example of what can achieved by simple solidarity with someone in trouble. We should celebrate.’
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.
The authorities had said the protesters did not have approval, and that their protest could threaten public safety.
The march presented the Kremlin with a quandary: either use force to break up the protest, and risk provoking more anger, or stand aside and let the protest take place, which risked revealing weakness to the Kremlin’s opponents.
The charges against Golunov inflamed opinion among urban professionals, a group that is in a minority nationwide, but which has outsize influence in Moscow.
The three leading daily newspapers – Vedomosti, Kommersant and RBK – all carried the same headline on Monday in a rare show of solidarity: ‘I am/We are Ivan Golunov.’
Journalists had protested outside Moscow’s police headquarters day after day demanding the case be dropped and celebrities and even some high-profile state TV anchors had spoken out for Golunov.
Many journalists in Russia say they do not feel safe operating and reporting freely.
Pavel Kanygin, investigative reporter at Novaya Gazeta, said: ‘We have put the pressure on the system and it worked this time. But it really is impossible to work in this environment.’
Many Russian journalists have to tread carefully in their work, especially when reporting about Putin and his family.
But since Golunov’s work mostly focused on Moscow City Hall and the city’s crime-ridden funeral industry, the case raised questions about a possible shift in where the red lines are drawn in Russian journalism.
Award-winning journalist Roman Badanin was ousted from three major editorial positions between 2011 and 2016 after the media outlets under his leadership touched on topics believed to be too sensitive for the Kremlin.
Three top editors at the business newspaper RBC, including Badanin, were ousted in 2016 after reporting on Putin’s inner circle, including an investigative piece about an oyster farm near a mansion that a whistleblower has described as “Putin’s palace.”
To Badanin, the crackdown on Golunov stands out because it lower-level decision-makers, rather than the Kremlin or government-connected tycoons, were likely behind it.