Dodgy Drug Charges Are Being Used to Silence Russia's Opposition

If you're a journalist or an activist in Russia, drugs can magically appear in your backpack.
Ivan Golunov russia drugs

On the 6th of June, the Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov was snatched up in central Moscow by a pair of plainclothes cops as he headed to meet fellow journalists. The 36-year-old was handcuffed, bundled into a car and taken to a police station, where 3.5 grams of mephedrone were found in his backpack.

Golunov says he was then beaten – a medical exam later found abrasions on his back and bruising around one eye – and denied access to a lawyer for over 15 hours, until one of the detectives called a reporter at the BBC's Russian Service and told her what had happened. Meanwhile, police searched his apartment and found five grams of cocaine and a set of scales, which was enough to charge Golunov with drug dealing. In Russia, this crime carries a sentence of between 10 to 20 years.


Golunov's case sparked outcry and unprecedented solidarity in the Russian media. On the 8th of June, as President Vladimir Putin swanned around an economic conference in St Petersburg, trying to convince other countries Russia was totally safe and non-corrupt, the nation’s attention was transfixed on a courthouse in Moscow, where a crowd of a few hundred had gathered chanting Ivan's name in support.

Protests and pickets broke out across Moscow and St Petersburg, while famous faces such as Soviet TV fixture Vladimir Pozner and rapper Oxxxymiron demanded Ivan's release. Three prominent newspapers splashed the same headline over their front sheets: "I/We are Ivan Golunov".

Five days after his arrest, the pressure paid off. In a rare move, on the 11th of June the charges against Golunov were dropped. Meanwhile, the officers involved in the case were suspended.
But this wasn’t the first time a journalist or activist who has been critical of Putin’s Russia has been stitched up with drugs.

A lot of things were fishy about Golunov’s case: first of all, photos police put up on their website of a Breaking Bad-style drug lab in Golunov's apartment later turned out not to be of Golunov’s apartment. The "witness" – who had to be present for the search by law – was a man named "Sergey" wearing a flu mask. The police didn’t conduct fingernail swipes to check if Golunov actually handled the drugs.


Ivan specialised in uncovering corruption. He believed his arrest had something to do with his work – specifically, a piece he wrote for Meduza, a Latvian news agency, about how the Russian funeral industry is dominated by gangsters and greedy officials, so much so that people cannot afford to bury their loved ones.

"From the very beginning it was clear this was a fabricated case; there were too many inconsistencies, even to an untrained observer," said Alexander Ratnikov, a friend and ex-colleague of Golunov, and a journalist for the independent outlet Open Media. "The release of Golunov was a great relief and an incredible victory for journalistic solidarity. But we shouldn’t forget about other victims of political persecution and people otherwise affected by drug policies in Russia."

Ratnikov is right. This wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. Ivan’s case was pretty much copy-pasted from Oyub Titiev, an activist from the Chechen branch of the human rights organisation Memorial, who got handed a four-year sentence earlier this year after being arrested in January of 2018 with seven ounces of weed in his car. But as Memorial’s chairman Oleg Orlov explained, 61-year-old Titiev was not exactly Wiz Khalifa.

"As well as being a devout Muslim, Oyub was a huge fitness fanatic – he did boxing, taught children sports, and every morning liked to go on a five-kilometre run," Oleg told me over the phone. "Everyone who knew him will tell you he never once smoked, never even had a drink. What’s more, he's been a defender of human rights since the year 2000, so he knew he's under constant watch. For someone like that to be caught taking drugs is impossible. It's insane."


Oyub’s grave misstep was working to expose human rights violations in a region ruled by Ramzan Kadyrov, a man whose track record on the matter makes Blackbeard look like Gandhi. "The last case Oyub Titiev was working on was a group of people being taken away from their families during the night, and then unfortunately we heard they were extrajudicially executed. And the Chechen authorities were not happy with this," Orlov said. "Then, Kadyrov got on the Magnitsky [sanctions] list in America so they closed his Instagram. That's his voice – the way he spreads his propaganda – so he was very angry. We had nothing to do with it, but he blamed us, called us the enemy of the people. I think that was the final straw."

In other words, Kadyrov might have had a man thrown in prison over an Instagram beef. A week after Titiev's arrest, in what was surely a complete coincidence, Memorial’s offices in Chechnya were set on fire. The organisation has now had to close up shop and leave Chechnya.

"Memorial was the last independent human rights group on the territory of the Chechen Republic," Orlov said. "All the others were chased out after extreme pressure, intimidation; offices raided, people beaten. After Oyub was set up, we were threatened, had to shut down, and now our operations in Chechnya have effectively stopped."

Over the past few years there have been a number of other cases in which journalists and activists have been arrested under article 228 (the illegal acquisition, storage, transportation, manufacture, processing of narcotic drugs) of the Russian criminal code after falling foul of the authorities. In January, Liya Milushkina and her husband Artyom, animal rights activists and members of the Open Russia movement, were charged with drug dealing in Pskov. Artyom remains on remand in jail and Liya is under house arrest.


In 2017, Sergey Reznikov – a grandfather and member of the Communist Party who often butted heads with authorities in Moscow – spent over a year in prison after mysterious packets of an unknown powder were found in his pocket. In 2016, Chechen journalist Zhalaudi Geriyev, a reporter for the local news site Caucasian Knot, was dragged off a shuttle bus, taken to a wood and tortured with a plastic bag over his head, then forced into signing a confession that he had a large bundle of weed in his backpack. He got three years. In 2014, also in Chechnya, 57-year-old Ruslan Kutaev got four years for heroin possession after holding a conference on Stalin’s mass deportation of Chechens during WWII, in which thousands died. And just days after Golunov’s arrest, Martin Kochesoko, a Circassian activist, was hauled to a pre-trial detention centre after cops found suspicious substances in his car.

These kind of stitch-ups have their roots in the Russian police's war on drugs, where planting evidence is standard-issue. While this isn't a problem unique to Russia – it happens elsewhere, too – evidence suggests it's systemic.

"Yes of course, this is everyday practice," said Arseny Levinson, a lawyer specialising in drug cases. "When it happens to journalists it’s relatively rare, but if you ask any drug user in this country they can tell you a story."

The law is notoriously unforgiving when it comes to illicit inebriants – anything over two grams of hash, six grams of cannabis and a half-gram of heroin counts as a "significant amount" that can land you 15 years in prison. According to a study by the Institute for the Rule of Law in St Petersburg, police often seem to find just enough drugs to qualify as a serious offence. As the paper points out, this in itself doesn’t prove any monkey business on the part of the cops, but it does pose some serious questions as to why that might be.


"They’ve got this system of measuring police work known as 'the stick', which means their careers and wages depend on how many crimes they can solve," Arseny continued. "We’ve got no presumption of innocence, so if you’re a drug user, something must be found – a junkie must sit in jail. So the police plant drugs. Another motive, more often, is to get a bribe. If you’re caught with drugs they can ask for a bribe. And once the police gets used to working this way, anyone can be a target."

A typical scenario involves someone calling the cops to report narkomani ("addicts") loitering outside, and police inevitably finding a small sachet of drugs. If there isn’t enough to build a criminal case, a little more can be slipped in, but if the mark decides to "negotiate", then the cop just tells the person who called that the suspects didn’t have enough on them.

So why are drugs specifically such a handy way to frame someone? “It’s easier than planting guns, or accusing someone of extremism," Levinson explained. "The anti-drug law is very useful for pursuing whoever you want, because the standard of evidence is very low, so in principle, anybody can be set up."

While Ivan Golunov walks free, the saga’s not over. Hundreds of protesters were arrested in Moscow last Wednesday, demanding the cops who allegedly set him up get their comeuppance. "I hope the Golunov case will show people that we often can’t believe what the police tell us," a woman there told The Guardian. "All too often, people turn away when they hear that someone has been charged with a crime. Especially if it's drugs-related."

But it seems like the public shitstorm is having a spillover effect. Just an hour after I spoke to Memorial, the news broke that Oyub Titiev would be freed on parole. The next day, MPs told TV Rain that Golunov's case might speed up a long-overdue review of Russia’s harsh drug laws, specifically those around possession.

If the bill passes, the proposed changes would downgrade the punishment for a "significant quantity" to two to five years, and an "exceptionally significant quantity" to ten to 15 years (although the upper limit of 15 years remains). That might be good news, because while Golunov’s nightmare ended quickly, there’s been no such outcry for the dozens of drug users and unlucky Russians this happens to every day.

Niko Vorobyov is a government-certified (convicted) drug dealer-turned writer, and author of the book Dopeworld, about the international drug trade.