Those of us who cover Russia aren’t spoilt by good news. This week, however, yielded not one but two amazing breakthroughs for critics of the government framed on drug charges.
On Monday, a court in Chechnya granted parole to Oyub Titiev of Memorial, Russia’s leading human rights group. Titiev, who investigated grave abuses allegedly committed by local security forces, has been behind bars since his arrest on bogus drug possession charges in January 2018. Chechnya’s chief official, Ramzan Kadyrov, repeatedly called Titiev an enemy and made clear he wanted Memorial out of Chechnya. Titiev’s friends and colleagues feared parole would be denied, but now Titiev should be free in a week, when the ruling enters into force. If not for the massive domestic and international campaigns on his behalf, he likely would have spent years in prison, like others who were imprisoned in Chechnya on bogus drug charges.
On Tuesday, authorities dropped the case against Ivan Golunov, a prominent investigative reporter who had been arrested on May 6 in Moscow on charges of drug dealing that could bring a 20-year prison term. Golunov alleged that police planted the drugs and beat him. His arrest appeared aimed at silencing him, causing outrage among journalists and other free-speech advocates. For several days, people stood in line for hours awaiting their turn to hold non-stop, single-person pickets in front of the Interior Ministry.
This powerful mobilization coupled with a colossal media outcry yielded unprecedented results: Golunov was released; an investigation into police abuse against him is ongoing; and the head of the narcotics police was fired.
On Wednesday, Golunov’s supporters conducted an unsanctioned march in central Moscow, seeking justice in his case and for other victims of political prosecution. Police arbitrarily detained over 500 peaceful protesters.
Quite a few people in Russia and abroad contend that getting the authorities to release two people unjustly behind bars while repression rages doesn’t amount to real victories. But it does. Otherwise Golunov would be in jail, possibly for years, and Titiev would hardly have a chance for release next week. Even in repressive states determined activism can make a difference and that’s something to celebrate.