A Russian investigative journalist walked free late on Tuesday after authorities in Moscow dropped drug charges against him in a rare climbdown by law enforcement following a public outcry.
Ivan Golunov, a reporter with independent media outlet Meduza, walked out of the gates of a Moscow police building to cheers from waiting journalists and wept as he thanked supporters.
“This all happened so quickly and thank you for that, that you supported me. I think it somehow influenced the course of events,” Golunov said, with tears running down his cheeks.
Golunov said he hoped his case would change police practices and “such situations will not happen again to anyone in this country.”
The journalist vowed to continue his investigative reporting for Meduza, which is based in EU-member Latvia to allow it to work more freely.
“I will be doing investigations because I have to justify the trust of those who supported me,” he said.
The 36-year-old was detained last week on charges supporters said were trumped up to punish him for his investigative work and placed under house arrest.
The case sparked outrage in Russia and abroad over what critics slammed as the impunity and corruption of law enforcement agencies.
In a surprise announcement on Tuesday, Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev said Golunov was to be released from house arrest and charges against him lifted.
Kolokoltsev also said he would ask President Vladimir Putin to sack the head of a Moscow police department and another senior official in charge of drug control in the capital.
The EU welcomed the news, with a European Commission spokesperson calling it a “positive outcome”, but demanding a probe into reports police beat Golunov in detention.
Journalists and activists reacted with joy.
“This is victory … I’m crying,” said Meduza editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny called it “an inspiring and motivating example of what simple solidarity can achieve”.
Golunov’s Meduza colleague Ilya Zhegulev said: “An unbelievable event has happened.
“Even the most optimistic didn’t believe this would happen, and happen so quickly.”
Arrest sparked outrage
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. His lawyers alleged drugs had been planted on him to justify his arrest.
Moscow police admitted photographs published on its website that they said showed drug paraphernalia found at the crime scene were not taken at Golunov’s flat.
Golunov’s lawyer Sergei Badamshin said Golunov’s fingerprints were not found on any of the items police said they seized during a search of his 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.
After Golunov’s arrest, hundreds protested outside a court and the Moscow police headquarters.
Supporters had organised a march to happen in Moscow for Wednesday to press for his freedom. But Golunov as he walked free said he would prefer supporters spend time with “loved ones and family”.
‘We are Ivan Golunov’
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,” it 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.”
As part of an unprecedented campaign of solidarity, major newspapers Kommersant, Vedomosti and RBK published the same front page on Monday with headline “I am/we are Ivan Golunov” in giant letters.
Even some staunchly pro-Kremlin television journalists such as RT chief editor Margarita Simonyan expressed support for the independent reporter.
Golunov has investigated everything from Russia’s shady funeral industry to corruption at Moscow city hall.
His release came a month after days of protests forced authorities to backtrack over plans to build a controversial new cathedral in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg.
During his two decades in power, Putin has silenced most of his critics and sought to muzzle the media.
The few opposition and independent media that still operate in Russia are under huge pressure, Kremlin critics say.
The Meduza website is based in Latvia to circumvent censorship, but some of its journalists like Golunov live in Russia.