MOSCOW — A judge on Saturday placed Russian reporter Ivan Golunov under house arrest for two months, denying prosecutors’ efforts to keep him in jail, after journalists here mounted an intense campaign to protest the detention of one of their own.
The judge’s ruling means that Golunov, a prominent investigative journalist who maintains his innocence, continues to face drug charges and a sentence of more than 10 years in prison. But the unusual move by Russia’s tightly controlled court system to place Golunov under house arrest — rather than pretrial detention, as prosecutors sought — illustrated the underlying tensions in what has quickly become one of Russia’s most high-profile press-freedom cases in years.
Golunov — whose investigations uncovered apparent corruption in the Moscow mayor’s office, in the funeral business and elsewhere — and his news outlet, Meduza, say that the police planted drugs on Golunov to bring a case against him as punishment for his work.
He was detained Thursday and said he was been beaten in custody, a charge police have denied. Russian journalists have rallied in support of Golunov, protesting for hours outside Moscow police headquarters and giving his case nonstop coverage online.
Saturday evening, after judge Mikhail Maximov said Golunov would be released to house arrest, a crowd of hundreds of supporters outside the courthouse erupted in cheers.
Oxxxymiron — one of Russia’s most popular rappers who, like many entertainers, voiced support for Golunov — posted on Twitter: “There’s nothing to celebrate yet, but at least it’s clear: resounding publicity hinders lawlessness.”
Though the Kremlin controls Russia’s television airwaves, independent journalists have managed to operate online, publishing splashy investigations via a plethora of start-up news sites. Meduza, which is based in Latvia, is one of the most prominent.
Independent Russian journalists have long faced threats and harassment. But Golunov’s brazen detention in central Moscow and the threat of a steep prison sentence appeared to herald a new level of intensity in the crackdown against media freedom in Russia.
Pavel Chikov, the head of the human rights group Agora, which has provided lawyers to represent Golunov, said the work of defending him was just beginning.
“All signs point to this case having been ordered up from the high ranks,” Chikov said in a post on the instant messaging platform Telegram. “And this case bears witness to the influence of the news media and of journalistic investigations today, as well as to the new risks that active citizens face.”
The police claimed that they had found more than 3 grams of mephedrone in Golunov’s backpack and more than 5 grams of cocaine in his apartment when they detained him Thursday. On Saturday, Golunov was charged with drug possession with intent to sell, meaning he could be sentenced to more than 10 years in prison if found guilty.
But the police case against Golunov appeared shaky. On Friday, for instance, the Moscow police department posted photographs on its website of what it said was a drug lab inside Golunov’s apartment. The department later removed those photographs and said they stemmed from a different case.
“I want to be proud of Russia,” Russian rock legend Boris Grebenshchikov said in a video posted online calling for Golunov’s release. “What is happening now is a shame and a disgrace.”
Golunov’s arrest and the subsequent protests overshadowed the end of the economic forum in St. Petersburg, one of the main annual events on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calendar.
In a sign that the Golunov case could exacerbate tensions within Russia’s ruling elite, even some leading pro-Kremlin journalists cautiously voiced support for the detained reporter. State television carried detailed news reports about the case, showing the protests by Golunov’s supporters.
“For now, no indisputable fact has been publicized that shows Golunov to have been involved in selling drugs,” Evgeny Popov, co-host of a political talk show on state TV, wrote on Telegram. “This all looks like a setup.”