‘Drinking heroin’ The witnesses against Meduza correspondent Ivan Golunov were part of a setup. Here’s how Russia’s police abuse a system that empowers them to jail virtually anyone.
Late October marked the beginning of the trial against the former police officers accused of illegally detaining Meduza special correspondent Ivan Golunov and falsifying evidence against him. The five Interior Ministry officials arrested Golunov on July 6, 2019, and planted drugs in his bag. After just a few days, the case was dropped, thanks in part to a widespread show of solidarity that extended beyond Russia and the journalism industry. After the incident, Golunov, who usually conducts economic investigations, spent months studying hundreds of drug-related court sentences. Golunov reports how Moscow police officers systematically force people with drug addictions to serve their investigations.
On June 6, 2019, I was arrested on suspicion of selling drugs. On June 11, I was released due to my “lack of involvement” in such criminal behavior.
There were two officials witnesses while my belongings and my apartment were being searched: Dmitry Bokarev and Sergey Kuznetsov. The role of official witnesses, often called “representatives of the public” in official documents, is to supervise police proceedings. For example, if the police physically hit a suspect, information about the assault should appear in the official report, or the official witness should record it in their own notes. Judges often use the official witness’s version of events as the basis for sentencing.
I first saw Sergey Kuznetsov a few minutes after I was arrested on Tsvetnoy Boulevard on June 6, 2019. He claimed to be a mere passerby, but his appearance betrayed this story. More than months before the coronavirus pandemic began, he was wearing a medical mask.
While we were waiting in the police station, Igor Lyakhovets (the head of one of the drug control departments) entered the room and greeted Kuznetsov. “Hi, Seryoga! What, are you sick?” he asked, referring to the mask. When I asked Lyakhovets whether he and Kuznetsov knew each other, he said he was just curious about his health, and that he had seen his name on a document.
In reality, the officers knew him well. Sergey Kuznetsov had arrived at Tsvetnoy Boulevard around noon that day and spent several hours waiting there in a squad car. He’d also spent the entire previous day with police officers outside my home. According to documents from my case, this was far from Kuznetsov’s first time cooperating with the authorities. He later testified that he had received roughly 1,750 rubles (about $23) from the police for acting as a witness.
The second official witness, Dmitry Bokarev, is a personal trainer. The network Dozhd reported that Bokarev studied at Nizhny Novgorod State University at the same time as another officer from the Moscow precinct where I was arrested. According to documents from my case, Bokarev spent all day with the police outside my home on June 4 (two days before my arrest). For the trouble (and because he says he missed several appointments), he, too, received compensation: 3,500 rubles ($45) .
How I found the false witnesses
In a recorded conversation, one of the officers (Ivan Beresten) clearly explained the practice of collaboration between officers and witnesses. “Take the witnesses they arrested. Then you can use [them], too. ‘Drinking heroin,’ it’s called. Someone’s arrested — for selling drugs, to boot — and then he [acts as a witness]. It’s completely shady, of course,” Beresten explained.
Using the Moscow City Court’s database, I found 11 people who have collaborated multiple times with the police, either as official witnesses or as buyers in sting operations. Often, these “representatives of the public” had been convicted on drug charges themselves, and some of them had gone on to work with the same officers who sent them to jail. Their stories are told below.
How a sting operation works
Ekaterina Gavrilova, who was arrested in 2018, explained to journalist Yuri Dud how a test purchase works:
Drug addicts constantly set each other up. I was set up by an addict I knew. I bought a dose of heroin for the morning, and he called me all evening, trying to get me to give it to him. […] Eventually he convinced me. […] We met, and I gave it to him for a thousand rubles.
Gavrilova was arrested and put in a pre-trial detention center, despite having AIDS and stage IV cancer. Gavrilova’s acquaintance, who acted as a buyer, was working with police.
The European Court for Human Rights (ECHR) has recognized the use of test purchases as provocation on the part of police and recommends stricter oversight of the policy. In 2012, the ECHR demanded that the Russian authorities provide “adequate and sufficient” guarantees against the abuse of test purchases. The court also insisted that investigations be conducted “passively”; that is, if a person refuses to sell drugs to a police officer, the officer can’t insist or raise the price.
How did the authorities respond to information about the Golunov case’s false witnesses?
The Moscow Interior Ministry’s press service recommended that Meduza discuss the situation with representatives from Russia’s Federal Interior Ministry, which redirected Meduza to its Moscow bureau. The lawyers of former officers Igor Lyakhovets, Akbar Sergaliev and Maxim Umetbayev declined to answer Meduza’s questions. Those officers, along with Roman Feofanov and Denis Konovalov, are being charged with falsifying evidence, abuse of office, and illegal drug trafficking due to their handling of my case.
In the spring of 2017, university student Ekaterina Khodireva was arrested for selling hashish to an undercover buyer. The court noted that the defendant had “actively helped the police in identifying a crime,” and she was sentenced to probation on April 26, 2017.
Two months after her trial, Khodirev served as an official witness to the search of Archie Stoneham. Officers were monitoring a courtyard on Studencheskaya Street where locals often made discreet drug exchanges, according to information they had received. The officers detained Stoneham after he left a small bag of MDMA next to a window. Stoneham was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
The police who searched Stoneham with Khodireva’s help were the same officers who previously arrested her. In her testimony for the Stoneham bust, however, she claimed not to have recognized the officers and said she’d merely been passing by the courtyard when “young men who introduced themselves as police officers” suddenly approached her. Six months later, Khodireva again served as an official witness for officers from the same precinct.
Free on probation, Khodireva was only free so long as she stayed in the good graces of the police, who maintained the power to return her to jail.
Police officers often recruit people who have been convicted repeatedly of selling drugs. Mikhail Rakhmankin is a striking example. In 2018, after serving two sentences in prison for this exact offense, he acted as a buyer in the case against Nikolai Pavlovich.
Rakhmankin went with a friend to Pavlovich’s house on April 26, 2018, to use amphetamines. After a few hours, they set out to the pharmacy to buy the deliriant Tropicamide and were arrested. Pavlovich told the police that he used drugs, but didn’t sell them, and that he only took money from Pakhmankina in order to buy the Tropicamide. Pavlovich was ultimately sentenced to 12.5 years in prison.
A month later, on May 23, 2018, Rakhmankin served as a witness in another sting operation.
On November 6, 2018, Rakhmankin was arrested again and later sentenced to 11 years for selling drugs. The verdict was subsequently overturned and the case is now with investigators again.
Sergey Goncharov has collaborated with the police at least seven times.
By March 2016, Goncharov had already been convicted twice (for drug possession and theft, respectively), but that didn’t prevent him from serving as a buyer in Maria Romanova’s arrest on March 5, 2016, when she gave him a small bag of heroin. She was sentenced to nine years in jail.
Goncharov collaborated with the police again just days later on March 17. Several months later, he was convicted of theft and sentenced to a year in prison. He was released in July 2017, and over the course of the following nine months, he participated in at least five more police investigations.
In the summer of 2018, Anastasia Khokhlova, a judge in Moscow’s Solntsevsky district, received multiple drug trafficking cases that mentioned Goncharov working with the police. Khokhlova returned these cases for further inquiry.
Goncharov soon ended up behind bars again after committing a crime with another “full-time witness,” Alexey Kholomeyev.
In 2014, Kholomeyev witnessed a drug purchase made by “O. N. Samoshina,” his roommate at the time. She was sentenced to six years in prison, and he went on to serve as a buyer in Andrey Akinshin’s case. Akinshin, who was under house arrest, sold Kholomeyev amphetamine in the stairwell of his apartment. A court later sentenced him to 12 years in prison.
In June 2018, Akinshin’s defense attorneys revealed that police committed procedural violations when staging the drug bust. Officers failed to register Kholomeyev’s statement that Akinshin was dealing drugs, and the operation’s warrant “contained false information.”
Kholomeyev served as an official witness again in February 2016. Two months later, however, he was arrested for theft and possession of drugs, and sentenced to two years and one month in prison, though he went free on September 19, 2017.
A year later, after the courts had started questioning their role as “full-time witnesses,” Goncharov and Kholmeyev (who lived in different Moscow districts) were caught trying to steal two bicycles and a scooter from an apartment building. Goncharov and Kholomeyev were sentenced to three and two years in prison, respectively.
Seven more witnesses and buyers who collaborated with police
May 23, 2018: The case of Nikolai Grigoryev
Chuprin served as a witness in a drug bust.
Quote from the case: “Chuprin stated that he was not coerced by the officers, and that his participation as an official witness was not connected to his own arrest, and he also stated that the illicit substances in Grigoryev’s residence were not placed there by the officers.”
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On October 1, 2018, Chuprin was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison.
Quote from the case: “Amphetamine — with a total weight of 2.39 grams — was placed for the purpose of personal use in the hood of his jacket, where it was illegally held with no intent to sell it until he was arrested by officers.”
In 2017 Evgeny Vorona was stopped by police while leaving Roma Alshanets’s apartment building. Vorona was under the influence of drugs.
February 27, 2018: The case of Maxim Shonin
During a sting operation, drug user Maxim Shonin sold 0.52 grams (0.02 ounces) of heroin. Shonin said he never exchanged any drugs or money, but he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Vorona was an official witness to the drug bust.
Quote from the case: “According to Vorona’s testimony, during the search of Shonin directly at the site of his arrest, no items or money were found in his possession.” (This testimony was rejected by an appellate court.)
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On April 17, 2019, Vorona was sentenced to three years in prison for possession of drugs after police officers in Moscow arrested him and found heroin in his jacket pocket.
May 10, 2018: Dmitri Fefelov’s case
As part of a sting operation, Krisko went to Dmitry Fefelov’s home, where he gave her cigarettes containing methamphetamine. When Krisko left to smoke, police burst into the apartment. They hit Fefelov in the face and knocked him onto the couch. Fefelov admitted to “selling” Krisko the amphetamines, but maintained that he hadn’t actually taken money for the drugs. He was sentenced to seven years and six months in prison.
Quote from the case: “Fefelov has known the defendant for several years; he is an acquaintance of hers, and she knew that he both used drugs and sold drugs. That is why she came to the police with a statement, in which she also indicated his name, address, and phone number.”
May 10, 2018: Dmitri Fefelov’s case
Akop Khachatryan served as an official witness in a sting operation that targeted Dmitry Fefelov (see the story of Irina Krisko above).
Quote from the case: “[Khachatryan] was walking near the Western Administrative District Interior Ministry building when police officers approached him. They asked him to serve as an official witness to the search of an apartment at the address: […] in the city of Moscow. Because he had free time, he agreed.
May 4, 2018: Denis Okunev’s case
Denis Okunev was arrested in a cafe after selling Krugova 0.12 ounces of hashish in a sting operation. He was sentenced to six years in prison. Krugova posed as the buyer.
Quote from the case: “She came to the police with a statement expressing her wish to assist in exposing the criminal activity of a citizen named Denis, who, as she could confirm, sold the narcotic drug hashish, which she had agreed to buy from him.
November 14, 2018: Alexey Bardyukov and Ivan Lazutin’s case
Hashish and an electronic scale were found in Alexey Bardyukov’s apartment, while hashish and 83 empty bags were found in Ivan Lazutin’s apartment. Both denied selling drugs and claimed only personal use of the substances. Each was sentenced to nine years in prison. Novokhatnyaya served as a witness to the search of Barkyukov’s apartment.
Quote from the case: “Police officers approached her and asked her to serve as an official witness in operational search activities, to which she voluntarily agreed.”
On October 11, 2018, during a search of Kristina Baranova’s apartment, police officers discovered hashish and N-methylephedrone.
November 14, 2018: Alexey Bardyukov’s case
Baranova served as an official witness to the search of Alexey Bardyukov’s apartment in the case of Bardyukov and Lazutin (see above).
Quote from the case: “Police officers approached her and asked her to search as an official witness in operational search activities, to which she voluntarily agreed.”
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On December 17, 2018, the Kuntsevo district court found Baranova guilty of drug possession and sentenced her to three years of probation.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale