war crimes in Ukraine

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Luhansk journalist Maria Varfolomeyeva freed after 14 months captivity

Halya Coynash

Kremlin-backed militants have finally released Maria Varfolomeyeva, the Luhansk journalist held hostage since Jan 2015.  She was exchanged for a Russian soldier and a civilian, and is now safely on government-controlled territory. 

Serious concern for the 31-year-old journalist’s health had been expressed after the promised exchange a week ago fell through.  The prisoners who were freed on Feb 29 reported seeing Varfolomeyeva the previous day and said that she was in a bad state and weighed only around 30 kilograms.  She was being held in a separate basement cell without any light and by herself.  This prompted the militants from the self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ to release another video with Varfolomeyeva on March 2.  If they wanted it to calm concerns, it did not, since the young woman seems alarmingly thin. 

Despite the obvious danger to a pro-Ukrainian journalist who had supported the Luhansk Euromaidan, Varfolomeyeva stayed in the city to care for her elderly grandmother, who died shortly after Maria was taken prisoner. 

Varfolomeyeva had been asked by Yury Hukov, a Luhansk journalist now working for the Kharkiv Human Rights Group to take some photographs for him.  It was while doing what for any journalist is part of their job that she was taken hostage.

Although captured on Jan 9, 2015, at a time when there had been no shelling in Luhansk for several months, the militants claimed that she was taking photos of buildings where militants were staying in order to pass on the coordinates to the Ukrainian military.  

An indicator of how trumped up the charges are was demonstrated by the initial RIA Novosti report on Varfolomeyeva’s imprisonment and the militants’ charges.  The government-controlled Russian agency states that Leonid Pasechnyk, ‘LNR minister of state security’ says that the young journalist is facing up to 15 years imprisonment and continues as follows: “On 27 January 2015 Luhansk was subjected to the latest shelling.  According to the investigators, Varfolomeyeva passed the coordinates for shelling to the Ukrainian military.” 

Maria Varfolomeyeva had been held prisoner for 19 days by that time, however RIA Novosti reported only Pasechnyk’s claim that Varfolomeyeva’s “guilt has been fully proven”.  As ‘proof’ of Varfolomeyeva’s guilt, Pasechnik produced a photograph of the journalist holding a Right Sector business card which they found on her social network account.   

Both the militants and the pro-Kremlin Life News TV channel clearly viewed the young journalist as something of a ‘trophy’.  She was heard on video being tormented by militants back in February and then in May Life News came up with a carefully doctored interview.  Varfolomeyeva’s 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.

The militants had kept 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. 

This time, thankfully, she has been freed after being held hostage for almost 14 months.

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