Ivan Golunov was arrested by police on drug offences, which he flatly denied, provoking massive outrage and forcing authorities to drop charges and probe police officers instead.
Russian investigative journalist Ivan Golunov walked free from a Moscow police building on Tuesday after authorities dropped drug charges against him, and he wept as he thanked supporters gathered outside.
"A huge thank you for your support," Golunov told journalists and supporters as he walked out of the gates with tears running down his cheeks.
He vowed to continue his reporting for Meduza independent news site, saying, "I will continue the work I was doing. I will be doing investigations because I have to justify the trust of those who supported me."
Russian police dropped drug charges against 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.
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.
#GoodNews: Charges against Ivan #Golunov dropped! We hail the historic mobilisation of the Russian civil society.— RSF (@RSF_inter) June 11, 2019
Now those who tried to set him up must be judged. We will remain mobilised for the the other journalists jailed in #Russia. pic.twitter.com/tIhBSaG33W
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.
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.