The Washington Post
Officials backpedal as Ivan Golunov’s detention becomes touchstone
law enforcement was on the defensive amid public outcry over the arrest of a prominent journalist.
MOSCOW — The stately, Stalinist police headquarters at 38 Petrovka St. has long symbolized the might of Russia’s security services. The founder of the Soviet Union’s secret police, Felix Dzerzhinsky, gazes at passersby from an elevated pedestal, his stone bust looming over the metal fence.
But Monday, Russia’s biggest police department was itself under siege. Outside the headquarters building, a steady stream of protesters took turns holding up signs calling for the release of an investigative journalist arrested last week on drug charges that his supporters are convinced were trumped up.
“I can’t stand this anymore,” said 47-year-old photographer Anna Galperina, protesting for the first time since the 1990s. “I’m scared for my children.”
The uproar over journalist Ivan Golunov’s arrest cuts to the heart of the tug of war over influence and freedom 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.
“The nervousness of the political class is rising,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser turned critic. “The authorities have started to frustrate regular people a great deal.”
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. 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, resulting in a sentence for Golunov of 10 years or more.
But the evidence against Golunov seemed so flimsy that even some staunchly pro-Kremlin television journalists rallied to his defense. Star entertainers released videos calling for his freedom. Hundreds of journalists and supporters gathered outside the courthouse Saturday night, their chants heard inside the courtroom. In a stunning reversal, the judge rejected the prosecutor’s petition to keep Golunov in pretrial detention and ordered him released to house arrest — even though a day earlier, police had intimated that Golunov kept a drug lab inside his home.
On Monday, public attention to the case grew. Three of Russia’s most respected newspapers — Kommersant, Vedomosti and RBC — published an identical front-page headline reading: “I/We Are Ivan Golunov.” On state TV, the co-host of a talk show that rarely strays from the Kremlin line demanded freedom for Golunov if “ironclad proof” of his guilt wasn’t made public.
The Kremlin seemed to be scrambling to respond.
“This particular case has indeed yielded some questions — that is, a large amount of questions,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, emphasizing that Putin had been personally briefed on the matter. “One can never exclude mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, even journalists . . . . The main thing is to recognize that mistakes were made and to explain how they happened.”
Ivan Kolpakov, editor of Golunov’s news outlet, Latvia-based Meduza, said Golunov may have been targeted because of an unpublished story. Golunov filed a draft of the story, Kolpakov said, just hours before being detained last week.
The police investigation against Golunov is continuing. Meduza is known for critical coverage of Putin, making the broadbased support for him in Russia’s media community all the more notable.
The Kremlin is jittery, analysts say, amid a decline in Putin’s approval ratings, questions over who will succeed him and a slew of protests across the country. Most recently, a spontaneous outpouring of anger in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg over the construction of a cathedral in a beloved city park led to an intervention from Putin and suspension of the plans.
Now the arrest of Golunov has electrified and unified Moscow’s creative class. Many are planning a rally Wednesday to support him.
In the baking heat outside Moscow police headquarters Monday, solitary protesters stood roughly 50 yards apart — a way to avoid detention for participating in an unauthorized gathering. Volunteers brought water and sunscreen. Two officers on patrol largely left the activists alone but removed a copy of the Russian constitution that someone had attached with handcuffs to a tree on the sidewalk.
“No one knows what the straw that breaks the camel’s back will be,” said another protester, 52year-old film producer Yevgeni Gindilis. “There are signs that this case could be it.”
In another unexpected turnaround, a court in the Russian republic of Chechnya on Monday ordered the local head of the human rights organization Memorial, Oyub Titiev, to be released on parole. Titiev had spent nearly a year and a half behind bars after marijuana, which he says was planted, was found in his car.
But elsewhere in Moscow, Leonid Volkov, a top aide to opposition politician Alexei Navalny, was sentenced to an additional 15 days in jail for organizing an unauthorized rally just after having served a 20-day sentence for a similar violation.