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09.06.2015

Call for Action to Free Luhansk Journalist held Hostage for 5 Months

   

Maria Varfolomeyeva had remained in Luhansk after the Kremlin-backed militants seized control in order to care for her grandmother who was ill.  The 30-year-old journalist was taken prisoner in early January and has now been held hostage longer than any journalist so far, and her captors keep changing the conditions for her release.  They have also threatened the young woman with a 15-year sentence on charges as far-fetched as those against Nadiya Savchenko. 

A number of journalist NGOs in Ukraine have appealed to President Petro Poroshenko; the head of the Ukraine’s Security Service, as well as international rights NGOs urging them to use any means at their disposal to secure Varfolomeyeva’s release.  They particularly call on the OSCE Media representative Dunja Miatovic, Reporters without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, Freedom House, the EU Mission in Ukraine and others to help. 

Their appeal explains that Varfolomeyeva has been held hostage for longer than any other person held by the pro-Russian militants.

“We don’t know at present what kind of conditions she is being held in, but it is clear that she is experiencing serious psychological pressure – she is forced to make numerous video appeals, testimony, and her capture has already been turned into a show by the Russian media.”

The appeal is signed by the Stop Censorship movement; the Institute for Mass Information; Telekritika; the Regional Press Development Institute and the Independent Media Union of Ukraine. 

According to Konstantin Reutsky, a rights activist originally from Luhansk, the militants at one stage demanded the release of a person convicted some time ago of crimes unrelated to the military conflict in exchange for Varfolomeya.  The Ukrainian authorities agreed, but then the militants changed their demands.  The SBU says that it is working towards her release, but five months on she remains in captivity.

Maria Varfolomeyeva took an active role in Euromaidan and was therefore in danger in Luhansk but could not leave her grandmother.  The elderly lady died a few days after her granddaughter was taken prisoner. 

As reported here, she was recently shown in a carefully doctored ‘interview’ on the Russian pro-Kremlin channel LifeNews.  Luhansk militants were also responsible for capturing Nadiya Savchenko and taking her by force to Russia, and they have now come up with the same charges against Varfolomeyeva as Russia is using against Savchenko.  Life News has tried to gain propaganda mileage out of interviews with both prisoners, with little success since neither woman has provided the anti-Ukraine propaganda clearly sought. 

Varfolomeyeva was first heard on a video being tormented by militants back in February and it seems clear from her words to Life News that she has been facing, at very least, a psychological beating from her captors. 

Her obvious distress during the interview and difficulty speaking made it easy for Life News to add their version of the journalist’s supposedly changed attitude towards Ukrainian volunteer fighters (more details here).

Varfolomeyeva was captured on Jan 9, 2015, when there had not been any shelling in Luhansk for some months.  This makes the claim that she was helping direct Ukrainian shelling particularly absurd.

The militants also claim her camera to be evidence of ill-doing and have posted the video of her interrogation on the Internet.  In it, they grill her on why she was caught while trying to take photos of apartment blocks where militants are living.  Journalists do take photos, and in this case Varfolomeyeva says that she was taking photos for a journalist whom she names and who is now living in Kharkiv. 

There is no overt violence or brutality, but it is quite clear that the woman is imprisoned, and doubtless guarded by at least one man with an automatic rifle.  The videos make it disturbingly clear that Maria Varfolomeyeva is being subjected to severe psychological pressure and terror, and urgently needs help.  

 

Halya Coynash

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