A Russian investigative journalist facing what supporters call trumped up drugs charges was ordered to be held under house arrest Saturday after appearing before a judge in Moscow.
Hundreds of people gathered outside cheered in support of Ivan Golunov, 36, in a case that has drawn international concern.
Many of his supporters had feared that he would continue to be held in custody.
“All this, it’s like a movie. I would never have believed that I would be present at my own funeral,” Golunov said as he arrived in the courtroom.
The Moscow-based reporter for the Meduza independent news site has been charged with attempted dealing of a “large amount” of designer drug mephedrone and cocaine.
He had tears in his eyes as the judge told him he would remain under house arrest for two months.
Supporters and his defence team said before the hearing he had received death threats and suggested the drugs were planted to punish him for his reporting.
“We have reasons to believe that Golunov is being persecuted for his journalistic work,” Meduza said in a statement.
The respected site is based in EU member Latvia to avoid Russian censorship, but some journalists live in Russia. Golunov has investigated subjects ranging from Russia’s shady funeral industry to corruption in Moscow city hall.
Golunov was taken to court from a Moscow hospital where doctors examined him and rejected lawyers’ claims that he had broken ribs and concussion, while saying he had scratches on his back and a bruised eye.
Golunov, who was arrested on Thursday, earlier told a representative of Russia’s presidential rights council, which advises Vladimir Putin that police had punched him and stood on his chest, while police denied he was beaten.
His detention has prompted international concern.
The US Embassy in Moscow wrote on Twitter: “We call for the release of Ivan Golunov,” saying he “should not suffer persecution over his professional activities”, while the British Embassy called his case “concerning”.
Around 20 supporters also protested outside the Russian Embassy in Berlin with slogans such as “Free Golunov”.
‘We’ll bury you’
Meduza founder and CEO Galina Timchenko told journalists outside court Golunov had received death threats over his reporting.
“Ivan received threats. Two months ago they became almost daily,” she said.
“They said ‘we’ll bury you forever’,” she said.
One of Golunov’s lawyers, Dmitry Dzhulai, told AFP it appeared the drugs had been planted on Golunov.
Moscow police admitted that they posted photographs of drugs paraphernalia wrongly captioned as showing Golunov’s flat.
“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.
‘Escalation of persecution’
Russian journalists and rights groups see the case as an example of the persecution of independent reporters, with many saying Golunov was not known to take drugs.
Outside the Moscow court on Saturday, some journalists held up placards with slogans including “I am the journalist Ivan Golunov. Arrest me too.”
Police detained four people, an AFP video journalist saw.
On Friday, dozens of journalists protested against Golunov’s detention outside Moscow police headquarters and were themselves briefly detained.
Reporters Without Borders warned his arrest could mark “a significant escalation in the persecution” of independent journalists in Russia.
Journalists at Russia’s dwindling number of independent media resources frequently face criminal probes, physical attacks and official pressure. Drugs accusations, however, are not common.