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Kremlin faces pushback over reporter's arrest

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Moscow (AFP)

Russian authorities on Monday faced an unprecedented pushback against the arrest of an investigative reporter on drugs charges, with both liberal and pro-Kremlin figures calling for his release.

Three top Russian dailies published the same front page in an unprecedented act of solidarity and defiance over the arrest of Ivan Golunov, who says he is being punished for his reporting.

"I am/we are Ivan Golunov," Kommersant, Vedomosti and RBK newspapers declared in giant letters on their front pages.

Golunov, a 36-year-old investigative reporter with Meduza, an independent Russian-language media outlet, was detained last week over allegations that he manufactured and dealt drugs.

He could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted. His defence says the drugs had been planted on him.

- International concern -

Gulonov's arrest sparked outrage among journalists and supporters and triggered statements of concern from the European Union, the United States, the OSCE and the Council of Europe, among others.

Golunov was released from pre-trial jail at the weekend and placed under house arrest after hundreds of supporters gathered outside a Moscow court.

In identical statements published on their front pages, the three newspapers said Golunov's prosecution was an act of intimidation against Russian society and demanded an investigation into the policemen who had detained him.

They said they welcomed the more lenient pre-trial conditions but that they did not consider the evidence presented by investigators to be convincing.

"We do not rule out that Golunov's detention and subsequent arrest are linked to his professional activities," they said.

Many newspaper kiosks in Moscow had run out of Monday's edition of the papers by early afternoon.

All three are privately owned but increasingly have to toe the government line.

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

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

Since Friday, Russians have held one-person pickets in front of Moscow's police headquarters -- the only form of protest that does not require prior approval from authorities.

Supporters plan to stage a march in support of Golunov on Wednesday.

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

- 'War against us' -

Many prominent figures spoke out in support of Golunov, with rock stars and popular rappers joining forces with rights activists and authors.

"Police and security services have declared war against us," opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta said on its front page. "Well, we'll respond."

In an unprecedented move, even some of the staunchly pro-Kremlin television journalists also expressed support for the liberal journalist.

"This is a test for us all," NTV channel host Irada Zeinalova said on television, urging punishment of the police if they failed to come up with firm evidence of the reporter's guilt.

Yevgeny Bryun, a narcologist with the Russian health ministry, said there were no traces of drugs in his urine.

Golunov has been charged with attempted dealing of a "large amount" of designer drug mephedrone and cocaine.

His lawyer pointed to egregious violations in his case.

Police released pictures of a drug laboratory that Golunov allegedly ran but later admitted that only one of the photos was taken in the journalist's apartment.

Golunov said he has received threats and believes he's being punished for his investigation of the country's shady funeral industry.

News of Golunov's detention overshadowed Russia's top economic forum in Saint Petersburg on Friday which was attended by Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The Bell, a respected online media outlet, said the Kremlin has found itself in a difficult situation and would be forced to take sides.

"If in this situation the state... does not restore justice the governability of the country as a whole would be put into doubt."

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