18.09.2015 | Halya Coynash

Journalist held hostage by Kremlin-backed militants for 9 months


30-year-old Luhansk journalist Maria Varfolomeyeva remains in captivity 9 months after being seized by Kremlin-backed militants from the so-called ‘Luhansk people’s republic’.  Earlier the militants had threatened her with a 15-year ‘sentence’ on charges chillingly similar to those which Moscow brought against Nadiya Savchenko after she was captured by the militants and taken to Russia by force.  The threats against Varfolomeyeva seem to have subsided, but there is still no progress on obtaining her release, with the negotiations having been disrupted for a tragic reason earlier this year.

Natalya Okhotnikova, Kharkiv Human Rights Group lawyer, explains that Yury Hukov, journalist working for KHPG, had been trying to arrange the journalist’s release via his former wife, Hanna Samelyuk.  She was killed on May 23 this year while travelling in the same car as Kremlin-backed militant Alexei Mozgovoi.  Now any negotiations have to be through volunteer organizations and the state-run groups involved in organizing exchanges. Okhotnikova says that this is an extremely difficult process, with any inept interference able to shatter the framework for exchange agreements thus far built up.

She adds that it’s much harder to obtain the release of a civilian since it’s difficult to find somebody to exchange them for.  At the moment, KHPG’s main task is to ensure that Varfolomeyeva is not removed from the exchange list.  The journalist’s disappearance has also been added to Ukraine’s single list of criminal proceedings and the relevant applications have been lodged with the European Court of Human Rights, she says.  The problem with the latter measures is, of course, that they hold no weight with the militants who are holding the young woman hostage.

As reported, Maria Varfolomeyeva was captured on Jan 9, and has now been held hostage longer than any journalist so far.  In May a number of journalist NGOs 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.  The SBU have said that they are working towards her release, but with no success

The militants keep changing the conditions for her release. According to Konstantin Reutsky, a rights activist originally from Luhansk, they 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 reneged. 

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. 

The militants – and, typically, Russia’s Life News, have both subjected Maria to ‘interviews’, which will, we hope, one day be used as evidence of methods of torture and psychological pressure used by the Kremlin’s proxies in Donbas. More details here: Desperate plea from Luhansk hostage facing 15-year ‘sentence’


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