I’m a witness! Who helps the police to fabricate drug related cases

Country/area: Russia

Organisation: Important Stories, Meduza

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 18/02/2021

Credit: Alesya Marokhovskaya, Ivan Golunov


Alesya Marokhovskaya, 26 y.o., editor and reporter of the data department of Important Stories. He has been engaged in data journalism and investigative journalism since 2016. I know several programming languages, I really like to solve complex problems, so that an interesting story for a simple reader will grow out of it.

Ivan Golunov, investigative journalist of the Meduza. A criminal case for drugs was falsified against Ivan. After that, he personally found out about the existence of regular witnesses and the idea of this investigation came to his mind.

Project description:

 Journalists from the Important Stories and Meduza newspapers found more than 140 “regular” witnesses who testified in Moscow courts in the so called “drug” trials. They are the acquaintances of the policemen or those who are dependent from them. Despite gross violations of the law, the judges sent hundreds of people to jail.

Impact reached:

After this story, many people who found themselves in a situation where the police involved regular witnesses now know how to prove in court that the witness is dependent on the police. In addition, their lawyers can do this work. Also after the publication, the number of cases where the only witnesses were police officers and their tame witnesses noticeably decreased. The problem has become widely known.

Techniques/technologies used:

To find suspicious police witnesses, it was necessary to find their names in the texts of verdicts or orders, and then to see if they can be found in other cases. Most of the said texts and rulings are published by Moscow courts in the public domain on the website of the Moscow City Court. Journalists of the Important Stories have downloaded (using Python) 56,860 documents from there for the entire time under 12 so-called drug articles of the Criminal Code. In the texts of verdicts and rulings are usually mentioned the testimonies of witnesses, byers and police officers. Or at least the names of people and their role are named. In those cases where the names have been preserved, we have extracted them from the texts using programming and found the names and surnames that can be found in documents of various cases.

In our Workshop we’ve discussed how you can extract names from the texts using Python. We shared our code.



What was the hardest part of this project?

After we got a list of names of witnesses who met not only in one case with the help of programming, there was a huge manual work ahead. It was necessary to check more than 100 thousand names, examine all the documents to make sure that we are really talking about the same witness. Exclude errors. It is very time-consuming and time-consuming, reading court decisions one by one all day long. Then it was very important for the material to find a live full-time understood and talk to him. After countless attempts to contact one of them, only one person agreed to talk.

What can others learn from this project?

Other journalists can use our approach for similar research. We covered the topic and told you exactly how we did it. This will be useful not only for Russian-speaking journalists, but also for others: there are other tools in Python for working with different languages.

Project links: