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Wave Of Support For Russian Journalist Golunov Follows Arrest On Drug Charges
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MOSCOW -- A group of Russian celebrities have joined journalists, activists, and other supporters of Ivan Golunov as they prepare for a march in Moscow on June 12 to call for the investigative reporter's release from pretrial house arrest on a narcotics charge that he denies.

Rap stars, rock stars and film celebrities voiced their support for the 36-year-old Golunov, recording video messages as part of an effort to keep up pressure on Russian authorities to drop charges they contend are groundless and politically motivated.

Latvian-based online news agency Meduza, where Golunov worked, compiled the videos, which includes messages from Russian stars such as rapper Oxxxymiron, DDT bandleader Yury Shevchuk, musician Boris Grebenshikov, and film director Andrei Zvyagintsev.

Organizers of the June 12 march said in an announcement on Facebook ​that they will not seek state permission for the rally, where journalists will hold articles by Golunov, who was charged late last week with attempting to sell a large amount of illegal drugs.

Demonstrators say they will demand the reporter's release as well as punishment for those responsible for what they said was the planting of illegal drugs and paraphernalia in Golunov's backpack and in his Moscow apartment.

The arrest has prompted a rare outcry from the country's media, with three leading non-state newspapers publishing identical front pages that question the motives behind the arrest of Golunov, who was injured while in police custody.

The dailies Vedomosti, Kommersant, and RBK ran the same headline -- "I Am/We Are Ivan Golunov" -- and the same joint statement from their editors on the front page of their June 10 editions.

They called for an investigation into an arrest the journalism watchdog Reporters Without Borders has warned could mark "a significant escalation in the persecution" of independent journalists in Russia.

"We do not consider the evidence presented by investigators [against] Ivan Golunov convincing," it said, adding that "the circumstances of his arrest raise serious doubt" that the law was adhered to during his arrest and questioning.

"We do not rule out [the possibility] that the detention and subsequent arrest of Golunov is related to his professional activities," it said.

Golunov, a well-known investigative reporter with the Latvia-based online news organization Meduza, suffered bruises, cuts, a concussion, and a broken rib during or after his June 6 arrest.

Defense lawyer Pavel Chikov, of the legal aid group Agora, said on June 9 that lawyers had formally requested that the Investigative Committee conduct a probe into how Golunov received the injuries.

A day earlier, a Moscow court placed Golunov under pretrial house arrest for a period of two months, which can be extended by court order.

Golunov, 36, could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison if tried and convicted.

Chikov says that Golunov is not guilty and Meduza editors have accused police of fabricating the case to punish him and thwart his investigative reporting into alleged high-level corruption among Moscow officials.

The newspapers' joint statement commended the court decision on house arrest but added that a detailed probe into the actions of officers involved in Golunov's detention was needed. To ensure transparency, it said the results must be made public.

Colleagues and friends of Golunov's have described the charges as a farce, saying that he does not use drugs.

On June 10, forensics lab officials in Moscow said that wipe samples taken from Golunov’s hands and nails did not carry any drug residues.

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on June 10 that the Kremlin was following the case against Golunov.

Aleksei Chizhyk, a 31-year-old photographer, said he plans to print several dozen T-shirts with Golunov’s name ahead of the June 12 protest that is expected to gather several thousand demonstrators.

"This is everyone's business," Chizhyk said. "How long can you sit home and wonder how long things will be fine?"

"Every journalist who believes in freedom of expression and wants to do honest work should be here," said Masha Makarova, a 32-year-old Moscow-based Russian journalist who works for Belsat.

With reporting by Matthew Luxmoore in Moscow, TASS, Meduza, Interfax, and Dozhd
In April, activists placed a mock headstone opposite the famed St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg.

Yet another mock gravestone bearing the name and image of President Vladimir Putin has appeared in Russia -- this time in the southwestern city of Voronezh.

"Incredible thief and liar. Political corpse," read the accompanying text featuring Putin's surname, initials, and birth year, and listing 2019 as the year of death.

Images of the installation appeared on June 5 on the Twitter account of Agit Rossia, a group that calls itself a "federal channel of agitation, news, and street protests in Russia." A subsequent post by the group attributed the pictures to an anonymous sender.

It was far from the first such stunt in recent weeks. Since March, mock gravestones with Putin's face have been spotted in at least eight cities, part of what seems a coordinated protest campaign.

The first appeared in the city of Naberezhnye Chelny, in Tatarstan, on March 10. Two activists were subsequently detained for alleged involvement.

The Naberezhnye Chelny "monument" to Vladimir Putin
The Naberezhnye Chelny "monument" to Vladimir Putin

Soon after that a mock gravestone emerged in Moscow, and a third in Berlin. On April 3, activists placed one opposite the famed St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, garnering widespread attention.

Agit Rossia has taken responsibility for at least some of the gravestones. In an interview with Meduza in April, spokesman Grigory Kudryavtsev said the group was created to "fill a niche" left behind by the lack of street protests in Russia.

"The movement is a community of people of different ages and political views. They're united by a common desire to fight against dictatorship and totalitarianism, and Putinist propaganda," he told the news website.

Kudryavtsev explained that Agit Rossia activists prefer to remain anonymous and most are not acquainted.

Perhaps the movement's most brazen protest action came in December 2018, when activists stuck up posters across the subway system in St. Petersburg depicting Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in Christmas hats offering New Year's greetings. "Our gift to you is a rise in prices, a rise in utility bills, a rise in gas prices, a raising of the retirement age," the posters read, alluding to some of the most controversial policies introduced by the Russian government in recent months.

The Kremlin has introduced a number of laws over the past year aimed at raising the cost of dissent, but it is unclear what the official reaction, if any, to the Putin headstones might be.

In March, users of VK, Russia's Facebook equivalent, reported that the social-media platform was removing images of the mock gravestones from its pages.

A spokesperson for VK told Meduza at the time that the images were being removed because the website had received complaints they were "deceiving" some users. The origins of the complaints were unclear.

The trend comes at a time when the approval rating of Putin and his government is slipping, and the proportion of Russians who profess a willingness to protest appears to be on the rise.

And it's not just Putin who is being targeted. In some places, it's the ideals and principles that his opponents claim he's placed in jeopardy.

In Yekaterinburg, overnight from June 4 to 5, journalists from the local news outlet 66.ru teamed up with artist Romoi INK to paint three very different gravestones onto walls across the city.

One "buried" freedom of religion, listing as the year of "death" 2013, when Putin signed legislation that bans language that offends the feelings of believers. The second gravestone rang a death knell for freedom of assembly, citing 2012, when restrictions on protest were introduced.

And the third bade farewell to freedom of expression -- 2019 brought laws mandating punishment for disseminating "fake news" and language expressing disrespect toward public officials, state organs, and symbols.

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