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It's not over We answer the most important questions that remain after the case against Ivan Golunov

Source: Meduza
Max Avdeyev for Meduza

Who is Ivan Golunov, anyway? Is he really all that good?

Ivan Golunov is a journalist working in Meduza’s investigations department. He previously worked for Afisha, Slon.ru (now Republic.ru), Forbes, and RBC. Golunov was also a special correspondent in the Siberia Bureau of Vedomosti and an editor for two prominent talk shows, Parfenov and Sobchak, on the television channel Dozhd.

Ivan Golunov specializes in investigative reporting. He has earned praise for the strong foundation of evidence that always underlies his work and for his efforts to use named and open sources rather than anonymous ones. That means a willing reader can often trace Golunov’s steps independently by, for example, using official company websites or public government registries to uncover direct or indirect ties between the subjects of Golunov’s investigations.

Golunov’s investigations often center on corruption in government purchases, especially in Moscow, but his interests don’t end there. Even before he joined Meduza, Golunov wrote about how Orthodox Church-related business shifted from friends of Russia’s previous patriarch to those of its current one when the latter took office. He wrote about how anti-migrant unrest in a Moscow suburb shut down local produce markets, the downfall of the Skolkovo innovation center, Vladimir Putin’s neighbors at one of his official country homes, and a major police corruption scandal. Golunov’s articles for Meduza (all available here) have been nominated for the prestigious independent journalism prize Redkollegia 10 times, and he has won the award once. Golunov’s colleagues have said he is one of the best investigative journalists working in Russia today.

What were the accusations against Ivan Golunov?

Officially, Golunov was charged with attempted distribution of cocaine and an inexpensive artificial compound called alpha-PVP. Investigators claimed that, at an unspecified time and place, Golunov had purchased the drugs from an unspecified individual with the intent of reselling them later on. Five packets of alpha-PVP weighing 7.16 grams in total were found in the journalist’s backpack, and 0.37 grams more were found in his apartment along with 5.39 grams of cocaine. Under Russian law, any more than one gram of alpha-PVP or five of cocaine is considered a large quantity, meaning that Golunov would have faced 10 – 20 years in prison under Article 228.1, Part 4 of Russia’s Criminal Codex if convicted.

On state television, however, investigators also made unofficial accusations. Moscow’s police chief for drug traffic control, Andrey Shchirov, said Golunov may have imported drugs from Latvia, where Meduza’s headquarters is located, to sell them in Russian nightclubs. Investigator Igor Lopatin insisted that Golunov showed signs of intoxication during his arrest even though Lopatin himself attached a doctor’s note saying the opposite to Golunov’s case materials.

What violations did law enforcement officers commit? What signs are there that the case was fabricated?

Ivan Golunov was arrested on June 6 at 2:40 PM, but his friends were only notified of the arrest at 3:42 AM the following day, and it was even longer before he was allowed to speak with an attorney. Golunov’s arrest was only officially registered 13 hours after he was first put in handcuffs. According to Golunov, police beat him when he refused to submit to a medical examination on his own. Doctors subsequently noted abrasions and a hematoma. For more than 12 hours, Golunov was practically facing a system intent on violating his rights alone. According to human rights advocate Olga Romanova, who leads a nonprofit for prisoners and arrestees, all of these actions on the part of law enforcement officers are characteristic of attempts to force defendants to confess to a crime.

When police searched Golunov’s backpack, a packet of drugs was sitting on top of his possessions as though it had just been placed there. If the packet had been in the backpack for a longer period of time, it would have fallen while Golunov was walking. During the search of Golunov’s apartment, an officer first examined the journalist’s desk and then turned to the space behind a cabinet, where he immediately found a packet of drugs and a scale. He then left much of the apartment, including a pile of sandbags on Golunov’s balcony, unexamined. Golunov told his attorney that the keys to his apartment were confiscated after he was first brought to a police station and that when investigators brought him back to the apartment, they left him in their car for 20 – 30 minutes. During that time, police officers walked back and forth among their cars. Dmitry Dzhulai, Golunov’s attorney, said they may have entered the building during that time.

In their testimony for the case, police officers said in exactly the same words that Golunov had been nervous and acted oddly during the search. They also said he showed signs of intoxication. However, Golunov was examined by a doctor after his arrest who noticed no signs of intoxication whatsoever. Forensic analysis later confirmed that Golunov had not used drugs. This could either mean that the three police officers who arrested Golunov made exactly the same mistake at the exact same time or that they intentionally framed the journalist in their testimony.

Every witness who observed the police’s actions in the first few hours after Golunov’s arrest appeared to know the officers personally. Golunov said one of the officers greeted a witness named Sergey Kuznetsov by saying, “Hey, Sergei, are you sick? What’s going on?” after noticing that Kuznetsov was wearing a gauze mask. The officer used the familiar form of the Russian second person. Dozhd later tracked Kuznetsov down, but he refused to speak to journalists. A second witness, Dmitry Bokarev, said that the investigative process was conducted professionally at all times and that police searched Golunov’s apartment slowly and carefully, even pausing to look into his kitchen ventilator. “All of the officers were always within our field of vision,” Bokarev said.

If there were so many violations, the courts could have taken care of it! Why make so much noise?

Ivan Golunov’s case involved a single court, and it didn’t take care of anything. On June 8, the Nikulinsky District Court held a hearing to determine whether Golunov would be jailed to await trial as investigators had requested. The journalist’s attorneys pointed out every violation they could find in the case materials that were given to them just half an hour before the beginning of the hearing.

In an interview with Mediazona, a former employee of the Moscow police force’s drug division said that even those materials were incomplete. He noted that they did not include any evidence that Golunov was planning to sell drugs, only the fact that they were found in his backpack and apartment.

None of that swayed Judge Mikhail Maximov. “The materials provided to the court in this criminal case confirm the allegations that Golunov took part in a crime. […] The defense’s conclusions regarding violations that allegedly took place during the arrest are objectively unsupported, and the case materials provided refute them,” Maximov declared when he placed Golunov under house arrest. Why Judge Maximov broke with common practice and chose not to send the journalist to jail to await trial is also unclear. He explained his decision to turn down the investigators’ petition to that end by noting that Golunov is registered to live and work in Moscow and that he had no prior criminal record.

Why have you decided that it was the solidarity campaign that got Golunov house arrest and then got his charges dropped? This was all probably an order from above.

The Russian government undoubtedly did influence the outcome of Golunov’s case. According to Dmitry Muratov, a respected Russian journalist who leads Novaya Gazeta’s board of directors, a meeting took place at Moscow City Hall before the house arrest decision during which “the idea emerged that Vanya should be released on house arrest at least.” Ekho Moskvy Editor-in-Chief Alexey Venediktov added that Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the state-owned outlet RT, asked Vladimir Putin’s administration to turn its attention to Golunov’s case as well.

However, there is no evidence to support the claim that government officials would have gotten involved in Ivan Golunov’s case so quickly if Russian journalists and their allies had not mounted an unprecedented solidarity campaign. From the moment Golunov’s arrest became public knowledge on the morning of June 7, individual pickets (the only form of public protest permitted without a permit in Russia) have been held continuously outside Moscow’s police headquarters. In the hours following the news of Golunov’s arrest, it seemed as though all of his support was coming from members of Russia’s political opposition, but they were soon joined by musicians, journalists, and other prominent societal figures of various political persuasions, including state TV hosts. After Kommersant, Vedomosti, and RBC, Russia’s most prominent business newspapers, all printed June 10 issues with a front page that read “I AM/WE ARE IVAN GOLUNOV,” calls to free the journalist reached a truly massive scale. Even entertainment magazines like Cosmopolitan and Esquire covered his case in Russia, and some went as far as republishing his work.

It is impossible to evaluate the exact level of influence the situation outside the legal circumstances of the case held over its outcome. Officially, what happened was that police officers themselves studied the case materials more carefully and decided that there was no evidence of Ivan Golunov’s guilt. However, that news was issued by Internal Affairs Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev himself.

Individual pickets outside Moscow’s police headquarters at 38 Petrovka Street. June 7, 2019.
Yevgeny Feldman for Meduza

Why have you shown so much support for this particular journalist? What about all the other journalists who are persecuted in Russia and around the world?

We showed support for Ivan because it is wrong not to stand by one’s friends.

We frequently cover the persecution of other journalists, from Julian Assange and Kirill Vyshinsky to the murders of Yan Kuchak in Slovakia and Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta. In English, we cover the persecution of Russian journalists on a regular basis. Yes, we provided an extraordinary level of coverage for this specific case in both Russian and English, but our resources are not infinite, and, of course, we focus them on the topics that concern our readers most.

Ivan Golunov’s case is also important because the likelihood that journalists will encounter police brutality in Russia is significantly higher than it is in Ukraine, the United States, and many other countries. The Reporters Without Borders press freedom rating lists Russia in 149th place out of 180, and although Golunov has been freed, at least six other journalists are currently in jail or prison in Russia. One of the most important news stories of 2018 concerned the murders of three Russian journalists in the Central African Republic, where they were investigating the activities of mercenaries with ties to restaurateur Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose Kremlin ties have earned him the nickname “Putin’s Chef.” Russian mass media laws have also gradually become more oppressive, especially where the Internet is concerned. Censors have used legal excuses to block news outlets until they delete undesirable materials, and we have actively covered those cases.

Why have you defended Golunov and not other innocent people who have been charged with drug use in Russia?

Ivan is our friend and colleague. For that reason, it truly was very important to us to fight for his freedom. In addition, solidarity among journalists is the only thing that enables independent media outlets to defend themselves, at least in some cases, from possible threats. If any journalist can simply be thrown in jail because of their work, then Russian readers will soon have nowhere to turn for objective information about the world around them.

All that said, Meduza has written extensively not only about Ivan Golunov but also about others who have been targeted in unlawful criminal cases. We have published articles on the cases against Oyub Titiev, Taisiya Osipova, Sergey Reznikov, and Mikhail Savostin, all of whom were prosecuted under the same statute as Ivan (for English-language summaries of their cases and links to complete articles, click here). Olga Romanova estimates that around 140,000 people who have been convicted under the same statute are currently serving prison sentences. Journalists and activists make up only a fraction of that figure, and we have reported on other cases as well.

The case against Ivan Golunov made the tactics the law enforcement system uses to develop drug accusations against innocent people distinctly clear. It put a spotlight on the violations and even fabrications police officers and investigators use in these cases, and that is one reason why the case attracted so much attention. This case was also one of the very first in which it appeared possible to stop the prosecution of a fabricated investigation altogether. Romanova wrote that “even one person who is torn away from the system can become the beginning of the end of that system.” Many commentators have noted that Golunov’s case has become a symbol of the fight against police brutality regardless of Ivan’s own view of the events at hand.

State human rights ombudsperson Tatiana Moskalkova has spoken out about the need to change Russian laws and executive practices following Golunov’s case, and Federation Council Speaker Valentina Matvienko has discussed public “distrust of law enforcement agencies.” Reports have emerged that the State Duma is prepared to amend Russia’s federal drug possession statute. The outcry surrounding Ivan’s case has created hope for systemic changes in cases where drugs are suddenly found in an individual’s possession in the precise amounts necessary to initiate a criminal case.

That is why we are certain that Ivan’s case is important not only for Meduza and other news outlets but for Russian society as a whole.

Ivan Golunov is free. What’s next?

First, we are planning to finish the investigation Ivan Golunov was working on when he was arrested. That article will be the key to figuring out who may have organized the law enforcement operation against him. While Ivan was under house arrest, we put together a group of more than 10 journalists from four Russian outlets to bring Golunov’s latest article to completion. We believe Ivan will soon join them. The article will be published in the coming weeks in several outlets simultaneously both in Russia and outside it. Other articles will also be published to further investigate those who may have ordered the illegal operation against Golunov.

The resources we have released to support Ivan, especially the Telegram channel Golunov and a special page on our Russian-language website, will now become a project called Golunov: Resistance to Police Brutality. The project will proceed indefinitely and shed light on cases of illegal prosecution as well as the individuals and organizations who provide aid in those cases. The project will become a space for discussion of policing reforms: Golunov’s case has shown once again that Russia’s law enforcement system is rotting from the inside and in urgent need of restructuring. Specialists from the Institute of Law Enforcement Problems have argued that the persecution of Ivan Golunov could become a turning point for those reforms, and transparency — that is, active journalistic and human rights work — must be one of the cornerstones of that effort.

We will use the Golunov project to draw attention to the human rights organizations and independent media outlets that have systematically helped people facing police brutality. Meduza will also continue investigating the situation surrounding Article 228. While we have published articles on the topic of unlawful drug possession cases in the past, we must acknowledge that they have been insufficient.

As we did with Ivan Golunov’s investigations, we will release all components of this project under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. That means these texts can be reprinted on any website, any blog, or any other platform without our permission.

Finally, we will do everything in our power to ensure that Ivan Golunov will be able to return to his work as an investigative journalist as soon as possible.

If you have ideas or tips for the Golunov: Resistance to Police Brutality project, send them to svobodugolunovu@meduza.io.