Hundreds have been detained in Moscow during a protest inspired by baseless drug charges brought against a journalist who investigated high-level corruption.
Police on Tuesday released reporter Ivan Golunov of the popular online news outlet Meduza, which is based in Latvia to avoid Kremlin pressure, in a rare retreat in the face of a public outcry.
But at least 1,200 took to the streets anyway on Wednesday, according to police, for an unsanctioned march that morphed into a broader protest against politicised cases.
As they tried to make their way to police headquarters, officers arrested those with placards or shirts in support of Mr Golunov and later began grabbing people seemingly at random. Police said 200 people had been detained but arrest monitor OVD Info said more than 400 were.
The Telegraph saw more than a dozen people dragged away who did not appear to be actively protesting or obstructing police.
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny was detained and charged with repeatedly violating demonstration rules, his press secretary tweeted, an offence that could see him jailed for 30 days.
Mr Golunov was arrested last week and charged with dealing mephedrone and cocaine, accusations that many linked with his muckraking of corruption by Moscow officials. Meduza said he had been receiving threats for his work, which included exposes of a deputy mayor’s extravagant real estate holdings and the monopoly over the funeral industry by people with links to top officials.
After an outcry by international media and human rights organisations, Russia’s interior minister announced on Tuesday the case would be closed for lack of evidence and police officers involved in the case had been suspended pending an investigation. Mr Golunov was released that evening.
The authorities here seldom back down under public pressure, but social protests including a successful campaign against the construction of a church in a park in Yekaterinburg have apparently rattled the Kremlin.
Russian media quoted sources as saying that the presidential administration wanted the embarrassing case of Mr Golunov out of the way before Vladimir Putin’s annual television call-in show next week. Mr Putin’s ratings flagged after an unpopular hike in the pension age this year.
Many of those detained on Wednesday were journalists, including Meduza correspondents. Alexander Chernyshyov, a researcher for the German news magazine Der Spiegel, was detained despite showing police his press card, his colleague told The Telegraph.
Police released Nikita Girin, a correspondent for the independent Novaya Gazeta, after he showed his credentials and editorial assignment. Fellow Novaya Gazeta correspondent Ilya Azar, who said police had sought him out beforehand to warn against taking part in the protest he had initially helped organise, was later detained.
Mr Girin called for the police who arrested Mr Golunov to be punished and told The Telegraph that people had taken to the streets against the misuse of narcotics laws to jail government critics and innocent citizens. More than 140,000 people, or about one-third of Russian inmates, are in prison for drug-related offences.
“It’s important to move this story, and it’s already being done, from the story of Ivan Golunov to the story of all of us, because any of us could just be going down the street and they could stop us and plant drugs on us, and without widespread public support we will just go away for many years,” he said.
More than 100 people have been detained at the #golunov protest @AFP says. 1st they were grabbing anyone with signs in support of Golunov, then just young people at random. Many journalists were detained such as this reporter for @novaya_gazeta, although he was later released pic.twitter.com/5rfqBv7p7W
— Alec Luhn (@ASLuhn) June 12, 2019
Several minors were also caught up in the arrests, a woman told The Telegraph through the barred window of a police van. One of those detained had been punched in the face by a police officer, people in the van said.
“Mama, I won’t be coming home today,” a young woman named Vera Oleinikova shouted from the window of a police van.
Emmanuel Grynszpan, a French correspondent for newspapers including Le Figaro, was also detained but released after refusing to sign a police protocol and demanding a lawyer.
The sight of police manhandling people and reportedly using batons contrasted sharply with the official commemoration for Russia Day, which marks the establishment of the modern Russian state during the breakup of the USSR.
“The system should work the same for everyone, without court decisions by telephone, without nepotism, without endless lying by the police, without police provocations,” opposition activist Sergei Mitrokhin said at the protest. “It’s good they released Ivan Golunov but that’s no reason to relax and sit at home. On Russia Day we should remind our authorities that Russia is not their private property.”
At one point, the march passed along a boulevard where enthusiasts in feather war bonnets had erected Native American teepees as part of the state-backed celebrations.
Louis Marinelli, an American secessionist who founded the Moscow “embassy” of the “Independent Republic of California,” was nearly arrested before police discovered he was a US citizen.
“Who grabbed the American? The American is free,” an officer outside the police van said.