The investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, whose arrest in Moscow on false drug charges on June 6 elicited unprecedented outrage in Russia, has been freed and the charges dropped after police admitted there was no evidence of any wrongdoing. His case has already gone down in history as a modern example of solidarity and resistance, but it’s crucial to remember that he is far from alone in falling victim to a fabricated drug case—and that in seeing the charges dropped, he is the exception to the rule.

Why did we see such solidarity and resistance in Golunov’s case? There was an element of professional solidarity (journalists came out in full force in support of their colleague), and a far stronger feeling that what was happening to Golunov was revenge for his work exposing corruption: he had already been threatened with just that. But it was also the effect of a simple liquid surface tension experiment, in which one excess drop of water changes the balance. 

Golunov’s case was that last drop. People are sick of endless arrests, trumped-up cases from which no one is safe, police who must be feared more than a gang of thugs in a dark alley, investigators who don’t investigate, prosecutors embroiled in commerce, and courts that don’t care but simply stamp rulings that weren’t decided by them.

People are sick of the fact that like Golunov, any one of us could have drugs planted on them; that they could be beaten and tortured with impunity; that the head doctor called on to examine their injuries would be on the side of law enforcement instead of that of the patient, and wouldn’t be afraid to admit that publicly (as in Golunov’s case); that a major TV channel would show a fictitious report about them during prime time; that they could explain all of this in court (that, for example, their confession was obtained under torture, which didn’t happen in Golunov’s case, but is completely standard) and hope for a judicial enquiry, but none would come: the judge doesn’t care. They have heard this a thousand times before. The judge doesn’t doubt that the complainant was beaten, but can’t and doesn’t want to do anything about it. 

I’ve been following cases just like this for the last twelve years. In recent years, the number of people serving prison sentences for drug-related crimes has stood at about 140,000. That’s currently 26–27 percent of all prisoners. It wasn’t always like that. In 2004, just over 43,000 people were jailed for drug-related offenses. That’s 100,000 fewer than today, despite an overall drop in convictions for all other crimes of more than one-third since 2004. Are there more drugs, or are the law enforcement agencies working more efficiently? No. Or rather, we don’t know. There are no precise data, nor indeed can there be in a situation in which cases are fabricated from start to finish.

Falsified drug cases are neither a new nor an undocumented phenomenon. A report by the Institute for the Rule of Law at the European University at St. Petersburg found that “Russian law enforcement officers have been put in a situation in which they are forced to use any means to achieve crime targets imposed on them by management, even if those target figures differ wildly from the real picture. In the case of drug crimes, those means can include entrapment, the planting of drugs, deliberate manipulation of drug test results, and falsification of information about drug crimes entered into statistical records.” 

In that respect, Golunov’s case was typical. It seemed so simple (i.e., usual) to law enforcement officers that they didn’t even resort to faking drug tests when they arrested him: they simply refused to carry them out at all, and that would have suited everyone, had there not been such a public outcry.

What happens next is very simple. A duty counsel would have come to see Golunov, free of charge. Usually these lawyers work closely with investigators. The lawyer would have convincingly explained to Golunov that he should confess to everything he was being accused of. Otherwise, they would (continue to) beat and mistreat him, and why prolong the agony? If he confessed, they would leave him alone and wouldn’t be angry; he could even try for a suspended sentence. No matter that he hadn’t done anything wrong, that’s just how things are. 

Or they might have said: “sign everything for now, and then change your testimony in court, and nothing will happen to you.” And people make a full confession and provide testimony against anyone they are told to. Eighty percent of drug cases are seen under special procedure, meaning there is no investigation of the evidence or anything else—only a sentence.

There are plenty of articles in the Russian criminal code under which the fabrication of evidence is punishable. There is also an article punishing judges for handing down a sentence that they know to be unjust. But these articles are dead. In my time as the director of Russia Behind Bars, an organization that helps thousands of people who have suffered at the hands of the Russian justice system every year, I can recall one case that ended in the conviction of several investigators—for abuse of office and extortion, not for falsifying evidence. The people who had set up the scheme were taken off the inquiry: one former police captain turned out to be the son of a regional governor, and went to work on the Olympic Games committee and then for Russian Railways. The other two are now deputies to the Prosecutor General. 

I don’t recall a single case of a judge being sent to prison for knowingly handing down an unjust sentence. Yet any falsification is obvious in court, and can easily be identified where there is willingness to do so. 

Of course it’s not only drug cases that get fabricated. It’s just that they’re among the easiest ones to set up. It’s even simpler to falsify pedophilia cases: for that, all that’s needed is a statement from a representative of the alleged victim. Usually that’s a former partner who is taking revenge on their lover or husband during a divorce and the division of assets. 

Obviously, pedophiles and drug lords really do exist. But so long as everyone is busy fabricating cases against innocent people and battling to meet targets, the real ones go about their business undisturbed. After all, their cases would need proper investigation: real criminals are clever and cautious.

It’s no more difficult to frame someone for murder: we recently handled the case of a young man with previous convictions who was charged with murder, despite having an alibi. After being tortured in a Moscow police station, he signed a statement, but knew enough to ask for a jury trial. He was acquitted by two separate trials by jury, the ruling of the first having been annulled, and now no one knows whether that second acquittal could also be annulled. We know of cases when rulings have been annulled two times, and even three.

Is there a chance of punishing the investigators in that case for falsifying evidence? Alas, if we are being realistic, judging by what we have seen up until now, there is no chance. Yet at least ten people were involved. It’s simply what they are used to doing. Why can’t the investigators be brought to justice? Because it’s our word against theirs, and our word doesn’t mean anything. They simply made a mistake, and will meet their targets using someone else.

Golunov has been freed, but no one knew how it would end for him, or for you and me. Because any one of us could find ourselves in his place, and some of us already have.

Even one victim yanked out of the jaws of the system could become the beginning of its end. There should be no illusions that we can change the system. That would require political will, and the current system suits the authorities. Ultimately, there are far more security service officials, judges, police officers, and public sector employees linked to them, along with entrepreneurs with state contracts—multiplied by the members of their families—than free-thinking members of the public.

But it’s also true that lawlessness in the country affects them too, and they understand that. That is why Golunov’s case was so important and why it united so many people. Everyone realized that they had to try to resist this lawlessness, this one time at least, and see this case through, to the dropping of all charges and the public bringing to justice of those behind it. People understood that they had to make a supreme collective effort for once, because no one had ever succeeded in doing so before—despite a well-documented database of fabricated cases. Now there is a chance.

By:
  • Olga Romanova