last update: June 11, 2019, 11:02 a.m.
In an extraordinary reversal, the Russian government dropped all charges Tuesday against an investigative reporter whose arrest had sparked widening protests.
In addition, the police officers who made the arrest will be suspended while their actions are investigated, the interior minister, Vladimir Kolokoltsev, said in a recorded statement broadcast on state television. He also asked President Vladimir V. Putin to fire two senior police generals, one in charge of drug enforcement for Moscow and the other the head of the capital’s western police district.
Biological, forensic, fingerprint and genetic tests had failed to turn up any evidence that the arrested reporter, Ivan Golunov, was involved with narcotics, as the police had charged, the minister said.
Criminal proceedings would be halted “due to the lack of evidence of his involvement in the crime,” Mr. Kolokoltsev said, and Mr. Golunov would be released from house arrest on Tuesday.
There was no immediate explanation for the rapid reversal, one that did not even involve the court system. Although the drug charges against Mr. Golunov were widely perceived as manufactured, that has not stopped the prosecution of numerous activists and journalists on the same grounds.
Mr. Golunov’s case unrolled in Moscow, however, with the public outcry expanding by the day. Supporters had called for a huge protest march on police headquarters on June 12, Russia’s national holiday. Dmitri S. Peskov, the spokesman for President Putin, had expressed concern that the march might overshadow the festivities.
There have also been reports that Mr. Putin himself wanted the case out of the way before June 20, when he is scheduled to hold his annual national call-in show, where people from around the country bring their questions and problems directly to the president.
Although the calls are heavily screened, Mr. Putin is often live for hours, and there was a good chance that he would have faced embarrassing questions surrounding both the dubious drug charges and the various instances of corruption that Mr. Golunov uncovered, especially involving Moscow’s City Hall.
Analysts had speculated that the authorities would act quickly to defuse the situation, especially after many celebrities and other public figures who are normally supportive of the Kremlin made public statements demanding that Mr. Golunov be released. Even state television, which habitually ignores such cases, made Mr. Golunov’s release its top story on Tuesday.
His employer, the Latvia-based Meduza news service, issued a statement welcoming the release and suggesting that the protest march be held at a later date. Moscow City Hall announced that it had approved a march for June 16.
“This is the result of an unprecedented international campaign of journalistic and civic solidarity,” Meduza said in a statement. “Together we all did the incredible: we stopped the criminal prosecution of an innocent person. Thank you!”
The matter could not end there, however, the statement said. “This is only the beginning, there is a lot of work ahead — so that what happened never happens again to anyone.”
Mr. Golunov, 36, had maintained his innocence since his arrest last Thursday. “I’ve never taken any drugs, and I’ve never had any in my possession, I’m a journalist, I’m doing investigations,” he told a reporter from Rossiya 24 while standing handcuffed in a police station.
His recent works include exposés describing how control of the funeral industry shifted from criminal gangs to a monopoly by government officials; how government contracts and expensive Moscow real estate flowed to relatives of the deputy mayor; and about possible graft surrounding the expensive, lengthy renovation of a famous fountain.
Practically from the moment of Mr. Golunov’s arrest, there have been unexpected admissions of clumsy police work. When the police announced that he had been found in possession of large quantities of drugs and released what seemed to be pictures of his apartment that made it resemble a drug lab, journalists quickly pointed out that only one of the nine photographs was actually taken in Mr. Golunov’s apartment. The police backed down, admitting that was true but contending that the pictures were related to a different case that might involve Mr. Golunov.
On Saturday night, hundreds of supporters gathered outside the Moscow courthouse where Mr. Golunov was being arraigned, breaking out into periodic chants of “Freedom” or “Ivan.”
Rebuffing prosecutors, the judge in the case ordered two months of house arrest rather than detention in prison. It is extremely rare for any judge in a Russian court to contradict the prosecutors, particularly in a case involving accusations of large quantities of drugs.
On Monday, three of the country’s leading newspapers published the same front page headline “I/We are Ivan Golunov,” and the slogan quickly turned into a popular T-shirt. In addition, because group protests are banned, supporters were holding round-the-clock, single-person demonstrations outside police headquarters in central Moscow.