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Two inspiring victories for freedom

Protesters demonstrate against the now-suspended extradition bill on

Protesters demonstrate against the now-suspended extradition bill on June 16 in Hong Kong. Credit: Getty Images/Carl Court

In recent days, two inspiring events took place in two very different parts of the world — events that qualify as victories for freedom.

In Hong Kong, hundreds of thousands — by some estimates, close to 2 million — marched to protest a bill that would have allowed people accused of crimes to be extradited to China, where protections for civil liberties and the rights of defendants can be charitably described as extremely limited. In response to this extraordinary pressure, Chief Executive Carrie Lam suspended the bill. Yet demonstrations have continued, with protesters demanding that the bill be withdrawn permanently.

In another concession to public pressure, Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who was serving a two-month sentence for contempt of court related to his role in 2014 street protests against the Chinese regime’s interference in Hong Kong politics, was released a month early. His first public act was to call for Lam’s resignation.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, far smaller — but still-effective — numbers rose up in protest after an investigative journalist was arrested on drug-dealing charges widely seen as fabricated in retaliation for his work.

On June 6, Ivan Golunov, a reporter for the Latvia-based news site Meduza who had covered shady business dealings by relatives of Moscow politicians, was stopped by police in the street, searched and accused of carrying several bags of the designer drug mephedrone. His arrest was disclosed only after he had been held for 14 hours. He claimed the police had not only planted the drugs but also beaten him. The Ministry of the Interior, which controls the Russian police, released photos supposedly showing drug paraphernalia at the journalist’s home, but Golunov’s friends said it wasn’t his apartment; the photos were taken down from the ministry’s website and blamed on a “mix-up.”

The obvious frame-up not only galvanized Russia’s beleaguered liberal community but also prompted an outpouring of solidarity from journalists, including ones employed by the usually servile state-run media. Solitary pickets standing 50 yards apart to avoid charges of unauthorized gathering held signs outside Moscow police headquarters. On June 10, three major business newspapers ran identical headlines declaring, “I Am/We Are Ivan Golunov.” On Facebook, more than 20,000 people expressed interest in participating in an unsanctioned rally for Golunov on June 12.

On June 11, Golunov was a free man, all the charges against him dropped. Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev promised an investigation and called for the dismissal of two senior Moscow police officials.

This victory didn’t exactly signal a thaw. When the planned rally took place anyway, with as many as 2,500 participating, hundreds were arrested. But a few days later, a Moscow court ordered the release of activist Leonid Volkov, jailed for participation in a previous unsanctioned protest, reducing his sentence from two weeks to one.

The circumstances in Russia and Hong Kong are extremely different. Hong Kong, a former British colony returned to China in 1997 but permitted to remain an autonomous province, is fighting to protect that autonomy from what its residents see as a foreign dictatorship in Beijing. In Russia, a domestic authoritarian regime has apparent widespread support, but the pockets of resistance are more influential than is often believed — and as the Golunov case showed, the resistance can work.

Such clear-cut good guys-bad guys conflicts are rare in an age when politics in the West often seem split between regressive movements of the left and the right. It makes one appreciate our freedoms — but also miss the moral clarity.

 Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.