By Isabel Gorst, for The Irish Times

What Russia’s younger generation fears more than anything else is not war or illness or going broke, but being picked up by law enforcers on the street and searched for drugs, according to Gleb Paikachov, an activist at the Foundation for Helping Drug Users, a Moscow-based human rights group. Russia’s anti-narcotics laws, he says, “have become a tool of police terror”.

The case of Ivan Golunov – an investigative journalist who was arrested by Moscow police on fabricated narcotics charges and then unexpectedly released last week – has resonated across Russia, stoking resentment about the country’s repressive anti-drugs laws and their implementation.

Activists like Paikachov are seizing the moment to press for reforms of the Russian criminal code’s notorious Article 228, which stipulates tough prison sentences even for minor drug offences.

Golunov’s ordeal – police beatings and pressure to confess to drug crimes – was not unusual in Russia. What was unprecedented was the massive protest against the case in Russian media that forced the interior ministry to back down and admit there was no basis to the charges. Others are not so lucky. Rights groups claim that tens of thousands of innocent people are serving time in Russian jails for drug crimes they did not commit.

Russia began tightening anti-narcotics laws in 2006 to flag determination to combat drug crime. Known as the “people’s law” because of its wide application, Article 228 accounts, at least in part, for a surge in convictions over the past decade, with almost 100,000 people jailed on narcotics charges in 2018 alone, according to official statistics. Most were young and underprivileged without the means to hire reliable defence lawyers.