ALMATY -- The arrest of investigative journalist Ivan Golunov on drug charges in Russia was a political sham aimed at framing the writer to stop him from reporting on corruption in the country, Central Asian media representatives and human rights activists say.
Golunov, a reporter with the Latvian-based online publication Meduza, was detained on June 6 in Moscow on charges of possessing and attempting to sell illegal drugs.
Police in Moscow claimed to have found drugs in his possession as well as in his apartment.
Golunov, who said that police planted the drugs on him, had been sentenced to two months of house arrest. Conviction would have meant up to 20 years in prison.
However, following an international outcry over the arrest, Russian Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev on June 11 unexpectedly announced that authorities would close the case because they lack evidence.
Golunov has been investigating money laundering and links between government officials and organised crime, as well as corruption in politically influential businesses, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
Under pressure from the world community
The termination of the criminal case against Golunov confirms that the accusations against him were fabricated, said Tajik journalist Khairullo Mirsaidov, who lives in Europe.
Russian law enforcement intended to put the Meduza journalist in jail for articles exposing corruption in the country's power structure, he contended.
"However, the Russian authorities did not expect such reaction to a criminal case. The police thought they would just lock Golunov up like all the others," Mirsaidov said in an interview.
Worldwide protests in reaction to Golunov's arrest and a planned demonstration by supporters of the journalist in Moscow as well as the risk of disruption of a live TV appearance by Russian President Vladimir Putin forced authorities to reconsider the case, he added.
Putin's annual question-and-answer session, in which he fields queries by telephone callers from the whole country, is planned for Thursday (June 20).
"The authorities made sure that Putin wouldn't be asked uncomfortable questions during the live broadcast. The [popularity] rating of the Russian president already is low," Mirsaidov said.
A public demonstration demanding punishment of the officials responsible for the case against Golunov took place in Moscow on June 12.
Police made more than 400 arrests at the protest, according to AFP.
Another fabricated criminal case
Golunov's detention and the subsequent investigation included gross violations of the law, and the case against him was fabricated, say international human rights groups.
Russian law enforcement agencies often base their accusations on fabricated evidence, tweeted Fabian Burkhardt of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
"Great work with #Russia|n police data showing police officers often confiscate *just enough" narcotics to allow them to open a criminal investigation according to article 228," he tweeted, referring to a recent study.
Russia has a long history of falsely prosecuting independent journalists whom it finds politically objectionable, said Gulnoza Said of the CPJ.
"Investigative journalism is treated as a crime where it ought to be viewed as a public service," she wrote on Facebook.
In Russia, curtailment of freedom of speech is more acute than ever. In the 2019 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Russia is ranked 149 out of 180 countries.
A wake-up call for journalists
The arrest of Golunov was nothing more than persecution for his work, say human rights activists and journalists in Central Asia.
"It is hard to believe that a professional investigative journalist was involved in the production and sale of synthetic drugs," Azamat Kasybekov, director of the independent Union of Journalists of Kyrgyzstan, said in an interview. "But it is very easy to believe that the security forces could have planted them on him."
Golunov, according to Meduza, had regularly been receiving threats, he said.
"The arrest of a journalist who investigated ... corruption is a threat to all journalists. Such incidents can be regarded as a restriction of freedom of speech and as pressure on the entire professional community," Kasybekov said.
"Exposing corruption schemes is hard and dangerous," said Kasybekov, an investigative reporter himself.
"The corrupt will do everything to stop the journalist and his [or her] investigation," he said.
'Cheap' set-up by the Russian authorities
The criminal prosecution of Golunov, like many similar cases, was intended to intimidate a journalist, said Diana Okremova, director of the Almaty-based NGO Legal Media Centre.
Still, such a move could not withstand the global outcry, she said.
"I am surprised at the crudity of the Russian authorities. Throwing drugs at a journalist is stupid -- it looks like a cheap, unconvincing set-up," Okremova said.
It makes no sense to expect an experienced and reputable investigative journalist to sell drugs and risk his reputation, she added.
The Russian authorities set a bad example for their Kazakh counterparts, she said.
"The Russian authorities believe that they have the authority to restrict the space of journalistic activity, and this paradigm, unfortunately, affects the realities in Kazakhstan," Okremova said.