Golunov case sheds light on Russia’s repressive anti-drugs laws

Journalist’s arrest on false narcotics charges drives activists to press for reforms

Russian journalist Ivan Golunov, who was freed  after police  dropped drugs charges against him. Photograph: Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov/File Photo

Russian journalist Ivan Golunov, who was freed after police dropped drugs charges against him. Photograph: Reuters/Shamil Zhumatov/File Photo


What Russia’s younger generation fears more than anything else is not war or illness or going broke, but being picked up by law enforcers on the street and searched for drugs, according to Gleb Paikachov, an activist at the Foundation for Helping Drug Users, a Moscow-based human rights group. Russia’s anti-narcotics laws, he says, “have become a tool of police terror”.

The case of Ivan Golunov – an investigative journalist who was arrested by Moscow police on fabricated narcotics charges and then unexpectedly released last week – has resonated across Russia, stoking resentment about the country’s repressive anti-drugs laws and their implementation.

Activists like Paikachov are seizing the moment to press for reforms of the Russian criminal code’s notorious Article 228, which stipulates tough prison sentences even for minor drug offences.

Golunov’s ordeal – police beatings and pressure to confess to drug crimes – was not unusual in Russia. What was unprecedented was the massive protest against the case in Russian media that forced the interior ministry to back down and admit there was no basis to the charges. Others are not so lucky. Rights groups claim that tens of thousands of innocent people are serving time in Russian jails for drug crimes they did not commit.

Russia began tightening anti-narcotics laws in 2006 to flag determination to combat drug crime. Known as the “people’s law” because of its wide application, Article 228 accounts, at least in part, for a surge in convictions over the past decade, with almost 100,000 people jailed on narcotics charges in 2018 alone, according to official statistics. Most were young and underprivileged without the means to hire reliable defence lawyers.

It’s difficult to ascertain how many drug cases are falsified, but activists say the police practice of framing suspects has become entrenched and that tens of thousands of convicts are doing time for crimes they did not commit.

Police officers are under pressure to meet crime-fighting targets set by their bosses, and planting drugs on detainees or falsifying blood test results is an easy way to do that, according to Arseniy Levinson, a lawyer at the Moscow-based For Human Rights group.

Personal gain also plays a role, with some suspects willing to fork out huge bribes to avoid charges or obtain lenient sentences.

Polls indicate that many Russians are only too pleased to see police crack down on drug abuse. But attitudes among the young are changing, driving a rise in grassroots civic campaigns to press for more honest and more humane drug policies.

Spisok 228

The Golunov case inspired a group of art activists in Moscow to launch the Spisok 228 (List 228) project that posts information about prisoners serving sentences for falsified drug charges online to draw attention to iniquitous cases. But while many people have supported the campaign by circulating the list in social media, few have come forward with the names of wronged prisoners or specific cases. “There is colossal fear and colossal stigma,” says Ekaterina Nenasheva, a co-founder of Spisok 228.

Russia’s interior ministry sacked two senior officers after releasing Golunov and pledged to investigate police handling of the case. But there are doubts that the authorities have either the will or the ability to overhaul law enforcement practices.

Signalling the view that change could be a long time in coming, Vedomosti, one of the newspapers at the front of the campaign to free Golunov, published an article this week providing legal advice on how entrepreneurs should react if faced with bogus drug charges.

“Police, investigators, prosecutors and judges are all part of a single line of command,” says Anya Sarang, co-ordinator at the Andrey Rylkov Foundation, which campaigns for the reform of Russian drug policies. “The only way to make things better is to change the law.”

Even before the Golunov furore, the authorities had realised that Article 228 wasn’t working and that the huge volume of drug cases was overburdening the judicial and penitentiary systems, says Levinson.

Public outrage could prompt the swift adoption of amendments to reduce the severity of sentences for minor drug offences. “It would be a small step, but could pave the way for broader reforms,” he says.

Paikachov is less optimistic. “It might happen,” he says, “but only if the massive response to the Golunov affair is not just a wave of hype that soon fades away.”