The Arrest of a Russian Investigative Journalist Prompts Outrage and Solidarity
Moscow law enforcement recently spent fifty-six hours torturing a man. Almost immediately, Moscow reporters mobilized to obtain and disseminate information about his arrest and detention, and, once they did, their audiences were able to observe the situation almost in real time. Journalists from the very few remaining independent Russian-language media outlets, and also those from semi-independent outlets (ones that are privately owned but generally toe the Kremlin’s line), published extensive and passionate accounts of the arrest and its aftermath. The victim was one of the family.
Ivan Golunov, a thirty-six-year-old investigative reporter with Meduza, an online Russian publication edited in neighboring Latvia, was arrested on Thursday afternoon. The independent Russian online publication Mediazona, which specializes in criminal-justice issues, managed to obtain a police file that contained Golunov’s own description of what happened that day. According to this document, Golunov was in central Moscow when two young men in civilian clothing ran up to him. “They approached me from behind,” Mediazona quotes Golunov as saying. “I asked, ‘Who are you?’ In response I heard, ‘Can’t you guess? Criminal investigative unit.’ ” The men handcuffed Golunov’s hands behind his back, loaded him into a car, and took him to a police station. There, according to the document, the journalist was searched. His repeated requests to contact a lawyer, and to have the lawyer be present at the subsequent search, were denied. It appears that Golunov didn’t know under what pretense he was being detained.
“I was told that there is such a thing as a forcible search,” Golunov says in the document, as reported by Mediazona. One of the investigators backed Golunov into a corner and forcibly removed his jacket. Golunov was then told to remove all his clothes, remove the inserts from his shoes, and lower his underwear to his knees. After the strip search, Golunov was allowed to get dressed again, and the investigators began searching his backpack. Golunov said that he tried to watch the search of the backpack but “might have missed something.” The officers opened its main compartment, where Golunov knew that he had a paperback book and a leatherbound diary; but “when the police officer opened this compartment, there, on the top, hooked on to the diary, was some sort of packet with something multicolored inside. Then they removed the packet from the bag and it turned out to be a rectangular package roughly the size of a passport.” The police placed the package in an envelope. Golunov refused to sign anything connected to the seizure of the package because, he wrote, “I had never seen it before.”
As part of the detention procedure, Golunov was taken to be examined by a police doctor. At the medical center, according to the document obtained by Mediazona, Golunov grabbed on to a chair in which he was sitting and once again demanded that he be allowed to contact a lawyer. To remove him from the medical center, the police started pulling him by the arms, and then, Golunov reportedly said, “we fell and I hit the left side of my head on a step. . . . I scraped my right wrist as they dragged me. At the bottom of the stairs, I was lying on the ground, I was being dragged, and [an officer named] Maxim pressed his head against my chest. Another officer, [also] named Maxim, hit me in the face with his fist.” A doctor did not actually examine Golunov until a full two days later, when he was diagnosed with a concussion and broken ribs.
Twelve hours had passed following his arrest before a police officer finally called a friend of Golunov’s, another reporter, to pass on his request to find a lawyer. On Friday morning, Meduza broke the news of the arrest, in a piece signed by its general director, Galina Timchenko, and its editor-in-chief, Ivan Kolpakov. By this point, it was clear that Golunov would be facing drug-related charges. “We are certain that Ivan Golunov is innocent,” the statement read. “Furthermore, we have reason to believe that Golunov is being persecuted for his journalism. We know that Ivan has received threats in the last few months, and we know which work-in-progress these threats concerned; we have an idea of who might have issued the threats.”
Meduza, founded by a group of Moscow journalists in 2014, is based in Riga, the capital of Latvia, a city where many Russian journalists and activists have moved to escape persecution. But, though the editorial offices may be safe in Riga, Meduza reporters still have to work in Russia. Golunov is one of the best-known and longest-working investigative journalists in Russia. (I have known him since 2004, when I was his editor at a city biweekly magazine called Bolshoy Gorod.) His work for Meduza has focussed on connections between the F.S.B. and the Orthodox far right and on corruption, including in the funeral business and, in particular, in the Moscow city government. When he was arrested, Golunov was on his way to meet another journalist.
“They Have Come for Us” read the headline of a Mediazona editorial calling on fellow-journalists and readers to defend Golunov. Details began emerging. The police were claiming that the packets removed from his backpack contained the drug mephedrone; Golunov was probably going to be charged with possession with intent to sell or even drug trafficking, which could carry a sentence of up to twenty years. His lawyer, Dmitry Dzhulai, told reporters that the police refused to dust Golunov’s hands or take nail clippings to determine whether he had touched narcotics (although they later changed their minds); they also, he said, refused to dust his backpack or clip a piece of cloth as evidence. Once Golunov was taken to jail from the police station, about thirty hours after he was first detained, a member of the Public Monitoring Commission, a nongovernmental body that monitors Russian incarceration facilities, was able to visit him. The committee member, Kogershin Sagiyeva, told the independent television channel TV Rain that Golunov was being held alone in a cell with three beds, a table, and one chair, all of them bolted to the floor. By that point, he had still received no medical care.
The police mounted a publicity effort of their own, publishing nine incriminating photographs supposedly made during a search of Golunov’s apartment. The pictures appeared to show packages of substances and a pharmaceutical scale. Journalists were quickly able to establish that most of the pictures were not taken in Golunov’s apartment. The police finally admitted that eight of the photos were taken elsewhere, but claimed that they were made in the process of investigating a narcotics ring of which they suspected Golunov of being a part. State media began publishing and airing ever more outlandish allegations. (I am purposefully not repeating them.)
Most of this story is typical of Russian law enforcement. Russia Behind Bars, a human-rights organization founded by a former journalist, has documented numerous cases of drugs being planted on suspects—usually because police officers are under pressure to make drug-related arrests, but also often because someone powerful wants someone else to end up behind bars. A recent example is the Chechen human-rights activist Oyub Titiev, who appears to have been framed on drug charges. Beatings and denial of medical care are also anything but unusual—they resulted in the death, in a Moscow jail, of the muckraking accountant Sergei Magnitsky.
On Friday, journalists and others began protesting in Moscow, in front of the police headquarters, just a block from where Golunov had been detained. Russian law requires that protesters obtain permits two weeks ahead of time. To circumvent this arduous process, activists have invented the one-person picket: a person stands with a sign, and the police generally leave the protesters alone. Some one-person pickets are effectively relays: a person stands holding a sign for fifteen minutes or so, then someone else takes her place. On Friday, people who came out to protest Golunov’s arrest lined up to take turns with posters that said “Freedom for Ivan Golunov,” “I am Ivan Golunov,” and “The Case Against Golunov Is a Case Against Me.” In the byzantine workings of Russian law enforcement, a gathering of people who are not holding signs or chanting slogans is usually, though not always, seen as legal. This time, however, police special forces swooped in to detain people. At least fifteen protesters, including several prominent journalists, were detained briefly and then released. Meanwhile, the line to picket kept getting longer. At one point, a friend texted me that the wait was about four hours. I asked why, if police were detaining people anyway, participants didn’t just opt for an all-out protest. “No one is that brave,” the friend responded. The possible penalties are just too severe.
On Saturday, the protesters moved to a courthouse on the far outskirts of Moscow. All anyone knew was that Golunov would be arraigned there, and that the law required that he be arraigned within forty-eight hours of being detained. People began gathering at the courthouse at nine in the morning. Various blogs and messenger services carried the news that people should come with food and water, because nothing was available in the neighborhood. One-person pickets continued across the street from the courthouse. Journalists, some with their kids, set up a sort of camp for the day, laying out picnics on the grass. By the afternoon, when forty-eight hours from the moment of Golunov’s detention had passed, it was nearly ninety degrees Fahrenheit, and there was still no information on when the hearing would begin.
In the afternoon, independent media reported that Golunov was unwell and had been taken to a hospital by ambulance, under heavy guard. Then news came that doctors suspected Golunov had a concussion and broken ribs and were recommending that he be hospitalized. After several hours, however, the hospital chief rejected the ambulance doctors’ recommendation and cleared Golunov to appear in court. The hearing began at nine in the evening and lasted for two and a half hours. Very few journalists were able to squeeze into the tiny courtroom. Golunov was arraigned on drug-trafficking charges, and the prosecution asked that he be placed in pretrial detention pending trial. The court took the extraordinary step of rejecting the prosecution’s request and placing Golunov under house arrest instead.
Golunov’s supporters rejoiced in a bittersweet victory. “An innocent man under house arrest is what passes for good news now” was a statement repeated in many tweets and Facebook posts. But whoever wanted to get Golunov out of the way had scored a much bigger victory: the investigative journalist is now not only injured and facing the prospect of up to twenty years in prison; he is also legally banned from using the Internet or the telephone as he awaits trial.
On Sunday, one-person pickets in defense of Golunov continued at police headquarters. In an unprecedented show of defiance and solidarity, three leading Russian business publications—Kommersant, Vedomosti, and RBK, all of which are generally loyal to the authorities—announced that their print editions would run with the same front page on Monday. The giant headline reads “I Am/We Are Ivan Golunov.”