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Investigative journalist detained in Russia on drug charges

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Moscow (AFP)

Russia has detained an investigative journalist for drugs offences, prompting protests on Friday as supporters condemned the charges as trumped-up and suggested they were punishment for his reporting.

Ivan Golunov, a reporter with Meduza, an independent Russian-language media outlet, was detained in central Moscow on Thursday and police have opened a probe into manufacturing and dealing drugs.

A police spokesman said a 36-year-old man he did not identify had been detained with five packages of mephedrone, a designer drug.

Supporters said the drugs had been planted on him.

Reporters Without Borders warned Golunov's arrest could mark "a significant escalation in the persecution" of independent journalists in Russia.

Police on Friday briefly arrested several prominent reporters as they protested with placards in the front of the headquarters of the Moscow police, including author Viktor Shenderovich and Pavel Kanygin of the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

"I am a journalist. Arrest me too," said one of the placards carried by the reporters, while another read: "A journalist is a drug kingpin. Who would believe this madness?".

"We have reasons to believe that Golunov is being persecuted for his journalistic work," Meduza general director Galina Timchenko and editor-in-chief Ivan Kolpakov said in a statement.

They described Golunov as "one of Russia's most famous investigative journalists" and said he had received threats in recent months.

- Paying the price -

The Meduza website is based in EU member Latvia to circumvent censorship from Moscow, but some of its journalists live in Russia.

"Everything indicates that the authorities are planting drugs on their targets to shut them up with a jail sentence," said Natalia Zvyagina, director of Amnesty International's branch in Russia.

In his investigations, Golunov zeroed in on everything from Russia's shady funeral industry to corruption in Moscow city hall.

The journalist's lawyer Dmitry Dzhulai said police claimed they found packages containing drugs in Golunov's backpack and apartment.

"There are a lot of facts signalling that the drugs have been planted," the lawyer told AFP.

He said the journalist had been beaten while in detention and pointed to numerous violations including a refusal by investigators to take swabs of Golunov's fingernails and backpack to check for handling of drugs.

"He was detained at 2.30 pm yesterday and I only got a call at 4.30 am," Dzhulai said.

- 'Ludicrous provocation' -

During his two decades in power Russian President Vladimir Putin has silenced most of his critics and muzzled independent media.

The few opposition and independent media that still operate in Russia are under huge pressure, Kremlin critics say.

Golunov's arrest sparked wide outrage.

Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center said Golunov was a close friend and did not take stimulants because he did not like an "altered state of mind."

Johann Bihr, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, pointed to "the police's highly suspicious behaviour".

"If such methods were indeed used against such a prominent journalist...it would mark a significant escalation in the persecution of independent journalism in Russia," he said.

In an open letter, hundreds of Russian journalists demanded Golunov's immediate release.

"We believe that Ivan Golunov has become a target of a crude and ludicrous provocation," it said.

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