Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov has vowed to continue reporting on corruption after he was released from police custody, following a massive outcry over his arrest.
The 36-year-old was cheered by several hundred journalists and supporters as he walked out of a police building on Tuesday, after drugs charges against him were dropped.
“A huge thank you for your support”, he told the crowd and pledged to continue reporting for the independent news site Meduza.
“I will continue the work I was doing. I will be doing investigations because I have to justify the trust of those who supported me.”
His arrest last week sparked an international outcry over the treatment of independent journalists who are critical of authorities in Russia.
Earlier on Tuesday, Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev announced that Russian authorities had dropped drugs charges against the journalist.
Kolokoltsev said an internal inquiry was under way, adding that the police officers who arrested Golunov had been suspended.
The interior minister also said he would ask President Vladimir Putin to fire top Moscow police generals, including the head of the city’s narcotics agency, over the handling of the case.
“This is a very surprising turnaround of events,” said Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, reporting from Moscow. “Similar cases here have previously got caught up in Russia’s legal system with no way to get out, with the Kremlin saying they were unable to free a detained person – and Golunov’s supporters were very worried he would meet the same fate.
“This time round, it’s been clear from the past few days that the Kremlin were very nervous about this particular case. The pressure on the government has been immense. Whereas in previous similar cases, people like Amnesty International and other human rights groups have spoken out, this time the pressure has come from inside the country, from TV celebrities and cultural figures.”
Golunov has built a reputation for investigating corruption among Moscow’s most powerful oligarchs and political elite.
He faced 20 years in prison if convicted on the drug manufacturing and supply charges for which he had been arrested. His lawyers maintained the drugs had been planted on him at the time of his detention.
A planned central Moscow protest – which did not receive permission from state officials – will still go ahead on Wednesday, Vaessen said, with organisers promising “not to rest” until those who organised Golunov’s detention were brought to justice. Another rally, planned for June 16, has been approved by the authorities.
In an unprecedented show of solidarity on Monday, the Vedomosti, Kommersant and RBC newspapers each published front page headlines: “I am/We are Ivan Golunov,” accompanied by editorials calling for inquiries into the case.
“We do not rule out that Golunov’s detention and subsequent arrest are linked to his professional activities,” they said, adding that the journalist’s arrest amounted to an act of intimidation.
Hundreds of Golunov’s supporters rallied outside a Moscow court at the weekend. The journalist, who works for independent Russian-language media outlet Meduza, was then released from jail and placed under house arrest.
Golunov featured in a 2018 Al Jazeera investigative documentary, The Oligarchs, in which he told the story of securing a rare interview with Ukrainian fugitive Serhiy Kurchenko, only to be met at gunpoint with an attempted bribe.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Russian President Putin, said the Kremlin was “carefully monitoring” Golunov’s case which, he admitted, had triggered a “great number of questions”.
Peskov, however, sought to defend the police and courts.
“I believe it would be wrong to make general conclusions about the mistrust towards the entire system based on his case,” he told reporters.
During his two decades in power, Putin has silenced most of his critics and sought to muzzle the media.
Kremlin critics say the few opposition and independent media that still operate in Russia are under huge pressure, with their journalists frequently facing criminal probes, physical attacks and official pressure.
Russia ranks 149th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index compiled by the journalist watchdog Reporters Without Borders, RSF.
“As TV channels continue to inundate viewers with propaganda, the climate has become very oppressive for those who question the new patriotic and neo-conservative discourse, or just try to maintain quality journalism,” the RSF said in its 2019 summary for Russia, describing the atmosphere for independent journalists as “stifling”.
“More journalists are now in prison than at any time since the fall of the Soviet Union and more and more bloggers are being jailed.”
Many prominent figures have come out in support of Golunov, with musicians joining forces with rights activists and authors.
“Police and security services have declared war against us,” the front page of opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta read on Monday. “Well, we’ll respond.”
Even some staunchly pro-Kremlin television journalists gave their backing to Golunov.
“This is a test for us all,” NTV channel host Irada Zeinalova said onscreen.
Dmitry Djulai, Golunov’s lawyer, said he believed police had attempted to frame the journalist.
Speaking to Reuters after last week’s arrest, he said his client had been beaten, and police had refused to take swabs from his hands or rucksack or to take fingernail samples – all of which would have provided evidence of whether or not he had been in contact with drugs.
Djulai said police refused to call medics in order to catalogue and treat the injuries he said his client had suffered in custody.
RSF also suggested there were irregularities around Golunov’s detention.
“The extremely strange behaviour of the police suggests that Ivan Golunov has been arrested on a trumped-up charge,” Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, told Al Jazeera.
“Why would they otherwise deny him access to his lawyer and refuse to carry out decisive tests? If fabricated evidence really has been used to arrest a journalist who is so well-known throughout Russia, this would mark a significant escalation in the harassment of the country’s independent media.”