Russian police drop drugs case against investigative journalist: RIA

FILE PHOTO: Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov, who was detained by police and accused of drug offences, speaks inside a defendants' cage as he attends a court hearing in Moscow, Russia June 8, 2019. REUTERS/Tatyana Makeyeva

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian police on Tuesday dropped drugs charges against journalist Ivan Golunov, a rare U-turn by the authorities in the face of anger from his supporters who alleged he was framed for his reporting and threatened to stage a mass protest in Moscow.

Golunov, a 36-year-old journalist known for exposing corruption among Moscow city officials, was detained by police on Thursday last week and accused of serious drug offenses which he flatly denied.

Russian journalists critical of authorities have led a dangerous existence since the 1990s – sometimes threatened, physically attacked, and even murdered for their work.

But the crude way supporters said Golunov was set up triggered an unusual show of media unity and an uncharacteristically swift response from authorities nervous about social unrest at a time when President Vladimir Putin already faces disquiet over living standards.

Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev said in a statement that the criminal case against Golunov was being dropped due to a lack of evidence of any wrongdoing on his part. He said he would be freed from house arrest later on Tuesday.

Some police officers involved in the case were being temporarily removed from duty pending an investigation, he said, adding that he planned to ask Putin to dismiss other more senior police personnel.

“I believe that the rights of every citizen, regardless of his profession, must be protected,” said Kolokoltsev.

Before the police backed down, nearly 25,000 people had signed up to a Facebook page expressing their intention to take part in a protest march on Wednesday in solidarity with Golunov.

The authorities had said the protesters did not have approval, and that their protest could threaten public safety.

The march presented the Kremlin with a quandary: either use force to break up the protest, and risk provoking more anger, or stand aside and let the protest take place, which risked revealing weakness to the Kremlin’s opponents.

The charges against Golunov inflamed opinion among urban professionals, a group that is in a minority nationwide, but which has outsize influence in Moscow.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Christian Lowe)

Sanctioned for drugs, Venezuela vice-president slams U.S. ‘aggression’

Venezuela Vice President

By Andrew Cawthorne and Alexandra Ulmer

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s powerful Vice President Tareck El Aissami on Tuesday called his blacklisting by the United States on drug charges an “imperialist aggression” in the first bilateral flare-up under the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

“We shall not be distracted by these miserable provocations,” he added in a series of tweets. “Truth is invincible and we will see this vile aggression dispelled.”

The U.S. Department of Treasury on Monday sanctioned El Aissami and Samark Lopez, whom it identified as his associate, on accusations of masterminding an international network shipping drugs to Mexico and the United States.

Lopez also said the listings appeared politically motivated.

“Mr. Lopez is not a government official and has not engaged in drug trafficking,” he said in a statement on his website describing himself as a “legitimate businessman.”

President Nicolas Maduro’s government has frequently cast U.S. and opposition accusations of drug-trafficking, corruption and human rights abuses as a false pretext to justify meddling in Venezuela and a push to topple him.

Maduro, 54, narrowly won election in 2013 to replace the late Hugo Chavez, but his popularity has plummeted amid an economic crisis in the nation of 30 million people.

Though he frequently lashed out at former U.S. leader Barack Obama, the Venezuelan president has so far refrained from criticizing Trump.

The sanction on El Aissami will dent Maduro’s hopes Trump might avoid confrontation with Venezuela but could also help him by providing a nationalist card to play, said Tulane University academic and Venezuela expert David Smilde.

“This is a tremendous gift to Maduro as it ensures El Aissami’s loyalty. It essentially increases El Aissami’s exit costs and gives him a personal stake in the continuation of ‘Chavismo’,” he said.

“To be clear, El Aissami and others should be held responsible for their actions. However it should be understood this process has pernicious unintended consequences. I think we are effectively witnessing the creation of a rogue state.”

“CRIMINAL” STATE?

El Aissami, 42, whom local media report is of Syrian and Lebanese extraction, grew up poor in the Andean state of Merida and went on to study law and criminology, according to the ruling Socialist Party. He had been both a lawmaker and a state governor before being named vice president last month.

Venezuelan opposition groups have long accused El Aissami of repressing dissent, participating in drug trafficking rings, and supporting Middle Eastern groups such as Hezbollah.

The head of Venezuela’s Democratic Unity opposition coalition, Jesus Torrealba, said on Tuesday that the El Aissami case demonstrated the rotten and “criminal” nature of the state.

Another opposition leader, Henry Ramos, scoffed that Venezuela would no doubt claim drugs had been planted on officials “just like they plant evidence on Venezuelan opponents to make them rot in the regime’s jails.”

Venezuela is holding more than 100 activists in prison, according to local rights groups. The government denies the existence of political prisoners, saying all politicians in jail are there on legitimate charges.

A senior U.S. official said on Monday that El Aissami controlled drug routes by air and sea. The Treasury Department said he oversaw or partially owned narcotics shipments of more than 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds)from Venezuela on multiple occasions.

Another U.S. administration official estimated the value of property in Miami linked to El Aissami but now blocked was worth tens of millions of dollars.

The move was a departure from the so-called “soft landing” approach taken by Obama’s White House. At times it had clashed with efforts by the U.S. Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration, which worked with informants in Venezuela to nab influential officials for money laundering and drug trafficking.

Since 2015, the Obama administration had sought to use behind-the-scenes diplomacy to ease acrimony with Caracas and the fallout of a string of U.S. drug indictments against Venezuelan officials, such as Interior Minister Nestor Reverol.

“When the right wing attacks us, it shows we are advancing. Nothing and nobody will stop our victorious march to peace,” Reverol tweeted in defense of El Aissami.

(Additional reporting by Diego Ore in Caracas, Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by W Simon; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)