MOSCOW - A leading Russian journalist has been detained on drug charges that he and his supporters say are retaliation for his investigative reporting work into alleged misdeeds by the authorities.
Ivan Golunov, 36, a special correspondent with the online news portal Meduza, is well-known in media circles for investigative stories that exposed graft and corruption among Moscow city bureaucrats and the business elite.
On Thursday, Golunov was on his way to meet a source in central Moscow when he was detained by plainclothes officers, who said they discovered the banned "club drug" mephedrone in the reporter's backpack, as well as a larger stash of the narcotic during a search of his apartment.
Photos later published by police, allegedly from the scene, show what appear to be drug paraphernalia and chemistry lab equipment.
Golunov has denied the charges and maintains police planted the narcotics and lab gear. Several of the journalist's friends have also cast doubt on the authenticity of the photographs, arguing they were from a location other than Golunov's apartment.
The journalist's lawyer, Dmitry Dhzulai, has detailed police abuse of Golunov while in custody, including beatings and police refusal to take "swab samples" of Golunov's hands that could clear his client of the charges.
Meduza's CEO, Galina Timchenko, and editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov said the news organizationhad reason to believe the arrest was directly related to Golunov's work. In a statement published online, they said, "We know that Ivan has received threats in recent months, and we think we know from whom."
Recent articles by the journalist include allegations of corruption in the Moscow mayor's office and predatory mafia-run loan schemes aimed at bilking Russians out of their apartments.
Police have since charged Golunov with the large-scale sale of narcotics. Conviction could land the journalist in prison for up to 20 years.
Journalists push back
On Friday, hundreds of Russian journalists and supporters took turns picketing solo outside Moscow police headquarters, in accordance with restrictive public assembly laws targeting "unauthorized" protests. Nonetheless, 12 people were briefly detained while standing with signs demanding Golunov's release.
Smaller pickets were held in several other cities across the country.
Amid all the attention, Russia's attorney general's office agreed to review the case. "We will not allow the slightest deviation from the law by either side," said an agency spokesman.
Meanwhile, online commentators noted the drug charges against Gulonov resembled what many regard as a dubious case against Oyub Titiev, a 61-year-old Chechen human rights crusader who was sentenced to four years in prison last March for possession of marijuana.
The case was widely seen as payback for Titiev's work documenting human rights abuses in the Chechen Republic.
Free press threat
Russian journalists are no strangers to pressure and violence.
Earlier this week, a video blogger who covers corruption issues survived a knife attack by unknown assailants in the southern Russian city of Krasnodar.
In May, the entire political staff of the Kommersant daily newspaper walked off the job in protest over the firing of two colleagues. Their crime? An article exposing Kremlin displeasure with — and the planned resignation of — the head of Russia's Federation Council.
Still, some argued Golunov's arrest represented a step up in pressure against journalists trying to do serious investigative work in what is widely acknowledged to be a hostile media climate.
In an editorial titled, "They've Come For Us," Media Zona, an online portal that focuses on Russia's legal and prison system, argued that the drug charges against Golunov were so patently false that, in effect, they had one chilling purpose: "To scare us all."