war crimes in Ukraine

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Imprisoned Donetsk journalist Aseyev tortured for Russian propaganda TV ‘confession’

Halya Coynash
15 months after being seized by Kremlin-backed militants, Ukrainian journalist Stanislav Aseyev has been shown on a Russian state-controlled television channel ‘confessing’ to working for Ukrainian military intelligence

Ukrainian journalist Stanislav Aseyev has been shown on a Russian state-controlled television channel ‘confessing’ to working for Ukrainian military intelligence.  This is the first time he has been seen publicly since his seizure by militants from the self-proclaimed and Kremlin-backed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [DPR] in June 2017.  The militants have prevented all international monitors and aid organizations from seeing Aseyev during the last 15 months, and there have long been fears that his nearly total isolation in appalling conditions and without necessary medication was aimed at forcing precisely such a propaganda stunt.  The fact that this was for Russian television, in a programme overtly presenting Ukraine as responsible for the suffering of the last four years, only confirms the suspicion that Aseyev’s fate lies in the hands of people “close to Moscow”. 

Yehor Firsov, who studied with Aseyev and who was the first to report his seizure by the militants, is in no doubt that the militants have beaten out this supposed ‘confession’ to spying and working for military intelligence.  He fears that this will not be the last such propaganda exercise, and hopes that nobody will take it seriously. 

There are indeed no grounds for taking such an obviously staged performance for real, not least because these televised ‘confessions’ have become a standard part of Russian FSB [security service] practice in occupied Crimea which the Kremlin-controlled militants in Donbas have long followed.  A number of the prisoners forced to make them have later stated clearly that they were tortured and told exactly what to say. 

Firsov notes that Aseyev’s voice trembles at times and that his hands are held as though he is still in handcuffs. 

The staging is depressingly cynical.  It is known, for example, that Aseyev is being held in the building of the Isolyatsiya Art Centre (located in a former factory) which the DPR militants seized in 2014 and have used to hold PoW and civilian hostages. Donetsk journalist Oleksiy Matsuka points out that the video footage, supposedly of the cell in which Aseyev is held, was clearly shot somewhere else since there are no rooms like that at Isolyatsiya.

There is also a shot where he is apparently eating at a table where you can see a bottle of Borjomi mineral water and two bottles with medicines or vitamins.  

It is not just the location that has been faked.  Aseyev is known to have gone on hunger strike at the end of June in protest at his treatment in captivity.  Despite chronic health issues, he is being held in damp premises and is not receiving the medication he needs. 

Aseyev responds to clear provocation from the presenter Alexander Sladkov with dignity.  Asked why, when supposedly choosing “between Donbas and Kyiv”, he opted for the latter, he rejects the formulation, saying that for him a united Ukraine is no empty concept, that Donbas was, is, and will remain Ukraine. 

Everything about this programme is manipulative, even the shooting of this alleged ‘interview’ in the Donetsk City Library. Aseyev really only provides the required ‘confession’ to working for military intelligence, while later largely describing his real activities as a writer and journalist.  He did indeed write about the socio-economic situation in Donbas in these works, written under the pseudonym Stanislav Vasin and published in major Ukrainian media.

He is, however, asked manipulative questions and, regardless of his answers, it is in the presenter Sladkov’s hands to twist what is said.  Sladkov, for example, pushes a false distinction between Ukrainians soldiers dying on one side, and “children” on the other.  Aseyev tries to demur, but his words are taken and distorted against him with the camera now showing children, and teddy bears left near a memorial to children apparently killed in the fighting, amid sombre, funeral-like, music. 

There are two telling moments.  One comes when Sladkov is listening to what is essentially only Aseyev’s ‘admission’ to writing an autobiographical work, and asks if he was not frightened.  He was clearly being watched by the militants and was seized for his writing, but that is about fighting his free thinking, not purported ‘spying’.  At another point, Sladkov says that Aseyev tried to join a volunteer battalion “to kill Russians”.  It was a truthful admission of who was fighting for the Kremlin-created, funded and armed ‘republic’, but one that Moscow stubbornly denies.

It became clear around a month ago that plans were afoot to try to justify the militants’ claim that Aseyev had been spying.  Firsov reported on 18 July that Aseyev’s ‘DPR’ captors had begun publishing fake ‘diary entries’ aimed at presenting the journalist and writer as a secret agent carrying out tasks for Ukraine’s Security Service.  Firsov says that the material attributed to Aseyev paints the 28-year-old as some kind of James Bond who virtually single-handedly killed two of the most notorious militants – Russian mercenary Arseny Pavlov [‘Motorola’] and Ukrainian Mikhail Tolstykh [‘Givi’].  One of the excerpts has Aseyev supposedly describing explosions of phosphorous bombs launched by Ukraine’s Armed Services. 

Firsov also reported then that blackmail was also being used, with Aseyev told that is he didn’t ‘confess’ on video, that they would take his mother hostage too.  Firsov suggested then that fear for his mother’s safety could make Aseyev agree to provide what was demanded of him.  It may well be that this is what has happened.

Aseyev, who is from Makiyivka (near Donetsk) disappeared  on June 2, 2017.  Firsov reported then that Aseyev had failed to come to his mother’s home of June 3, as agreed and that she and friends had gone to his flat, finding the door broken in and a lot of things missing, including his laptop.  There was a particularly sinister note, since his Facebook page was still active, with somebody sending letters from this account, trying to get information about his contacts. 

Two weeks later, Firsov wrote  that the DPR militants were trying to beat out a ‘confession’ to justify his ‘arrest’ and for ‘charges’ to lay against him.  Then too, both Aseyev and his mother were placed under enormous pressure and, at least for a while, she cut off all communication with Ukrainian representatives.

It was only on July 16, 2017 that the DPR state security ministry’ finally acknowledged that Aseyev was in their custody and claimed that he was suspected of ‘espionage.

OSCE monitors tried to see Aseyev from the outset, but were not allowed,, nor has the International Red Cross been allowed to inspect the effective prison where he is being held.  

Aseyev’s colleagues and friends have recently put together a collection of his reports from occupied Donetsk under the title Incommunicado, with this recently published by Radio Svoboda.

There have been calls from the OSCE, EU, Amnesty International and numerous media organizations for Aseyev’s release.  See also Free Stanislav Aseyev. Statement of the Ukrainian PEN Center

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