MOSCOW: Russian police said on Tuesday they would drop drug charges against an investigative journalist and free him from house arrest, in a rare climbdown by law enforcement following a public outcry.
Ivan Golunov, a 36-year-old reporter with independent media outlet Meduza, was arrested last week on charges supporters said were trumped up to punish him for his investigative work. “Today he will be released from house arrest and charges lifted,” Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev said in a statement.
Kolokoltsev said he would seek President Vladimir Putin’s permission to sack the head of a Moscow police department and another senior official in charge of drug control in Moscow.
Journalists and activists reacted with joy to the surprise announcement, which came as thousands of supporters planned to rally in Moscow after days of smaller demonstrations.
Meduza editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov said “This is victory…I’m crying,” while opposition leader Alexei Navalny called it “an inspiring and motivating example of what simple solidarity…can achieve”.
Golunov had been charged with attempting to deal a “large amount” of drugs and was placed under house arrest at the weekend, facing up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
The reporter said he was beaten in detention while his lawyers insisted drugs had been planted on him.
Moscow police admitted that photographs published on its website describing drug paraphernalia found at a crime scene were not taken at Golunov’s flat.
The officers who arrested Golunov last week have been suspended pending an investigation, Kolokoltsev said.
“I believe that irrespective of any citizen’s professional activities his rights should always be protected,” the minister added.
The case sparked outrage in Russia and abroad over what critics slammed as the impunity and corruption of law enforcement agencies.
After Golunov’s arrest, hundreds of supporters protested outside a court and the Moscow police headquarters.
Supporters had organised a march in Moscow for Wednesday to call for his freedom, with nearly 24,000 people replying as attending or interested on Facebook.
The international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders hailed what it called the “historic mobilisation of the Russian civil society”. “Now those who tried to set him up must be judged,” the NGO wrote on Twitter.
“We are happy that the authorities listened to society,” the editorial team of Meduza and several other prominent journalists said in a statement. “This is just the beginning, a lot of work lies ahead.” In an unprecedented gesture of solidarity, three major newspapers Kommersant, Vedomosti and RBK had published the same front page on Monday with the headline “I am/we are Ivan Golunov” in giant letters.
Even some staunchly pro-Kremlin television journalists expressed support for the independent reporter.
Golunov’s lawyers argued that numerous legal violations accompanied the journalist’s arrest.
Golunov has investigated everything from Russia’s shady funeral industry to corruption at Moscow city hall.