Russian cultural figures and celebrities have rallied in support of investigative reporter Ivan Golunov, whose arrest and charge with alleged drug offences last Thursday has been slammed as politically motivated and an attack on free media.
Celebrities including politician Ksenia Sobchak, rapper Oxxxymiron, director Andrey Zvyagintsev, and rock legend Boris Grebenshchikov released video statements criticising Golunov’s arrest. Golunov, who works at independent Russian news outlet Meduza, is well known in Russian journalistic circles for his reporting on corruption and the links between political figures and business interests.
Protest and outcry marked this weekend in Russia, with the Russian media swift to condemn the arrest. In a rare show of solidarity, three of Russia’s leading newspapers — Kommersant, Vedomosti, and RBK — ran a joint editorial on their front pages this morning, titled “I Am/We Are Ivan Golunov”. It is not only independent media that has responded: up to 40 journalists from state-owned media have signed an open letter in support of Golunov, while state TV host Irada Zeynalova seemed to question the case against him on air.
On Saturday, Nikulinsky District Court ordered Golunov to remain under house arrest for two months pending his trial, rather than moving him to a detention centre. The decision was celebrated by protesters and Meduza editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov, who wrote in a statement: “We believe that Ivan Golunov is under house arrest (and not in jail) thanks to an unprecedented campaign of journalistic solidarity. Under today’s standards, what happened here was incredible — a victory, without a doubt.” However, Golunov will still face the drug charges against him, with Pavel Chikov, head of the lawyer’s association representing him, stating: “We will have to prove Ivan’s innocence, and we can only do that by proving the guilt of the operatives who searched him.”
Golunov was arrested on the afternoon of Thursday 6 June while on his way to meet an unnamed source. Police say they found 3.56 grams of the club drug mephedrone in his rucksack at the time, as well as 5.42 grams of cocaine in his apartment shortly afterwards. Golunov has since claimed that the drugs were planted.
He was formally charged on Saturday with drug possession with intent to sell. The maximum sentence for the offence is 20 years in prison.
The circumstances of Golunov’s arrest, search, questioning, and detention have raised serious concerns amongst his attorneys and colleagues. According to Meduza, Golunov was held for nearly 14 hours before he was allowed to see a lawyer, during which officer asked him to sign a confession; in this time he was beaten and denied his right to food and a phone call. Police failed to take samples from his hands that would provide evidence that he had been in contact with the mephedrone found in his bag. The interior ministry published photographs on their official website on Friday that supposedly depicted drugs in Golunov’s apartment, before admitting that they were of different location and removing them.
One of Golunov’s attorneys, Dmitry Dzhulai, has claimed that investigators attempted to block the journalist’s hospitalisation despite three different ambulance crews being called to examine him. He was eventually admitted to a Moscow hospital on 8 June, with Dzhulai claiming that doctors believe he has a concussion and potentially broken ribs. Formal complaints have been submitted against the officers who made the arrest.
“We will have to prove Ivan’s innocence, and we can only do that by proving the guilt of the operatives who searched him”
Similar drug charges, brought under Article 228.1 of the Russian criminal codex, have been levied against a number of journalists and activists in recent years; in each case, the police have been accused of fabricating evidence.
In a statement on Sunday, Kolpakov said: “All of us at Meduza are 100 percent certain that the persecution of Ivan Golunov is related to his journalistic work,” adding that Golunov had been receiving threats for over a year from the subjects of an unfinished investigation. Kolpakov said that Meduza would work with other Russian journalists to finish and publish that work.
Meduza has since made all of Golunov’s investigations for them available in English under Creative Commons licences. Golunov’s work for the outlet has exposed the practices of Moscow loan sharks, the real estate machinations of Deputy Mayor Pyotr Biryukov, and links between Russia’s funeral industry and neo-Nazi groups.
Several hundred protesters have been gathered outside Moscow’s police headquarters since Friday, forming a rolling single-person picket — the only public demonstration permissible in Russia without a permit. A number of arrests have been made at the site.
On 12 June, a peaceful march is planned in central Moscow, demanding Golunov’s release and punishment for the officers who carried out the arrest.