Journalist seized in Russian-occupied Crimea accused of ‘spying and sabotage’ for Ukraine
Almost a week after Vladislav Yesypenko was seized in Russian-occupied Crimea, the FSB are preventing the freelance journalist from seeing an independent lawyer. Changes in the FSB’s story, as well as the involvement of a ‘lawyer’ used in other political cases, make it likely that illegal methods, including torture, are being used to force Yesypenko to provide the ‘confessions’ demanded of him.
The FSB’s story as per an official statement on 16 March differs significantly from that heard after Yesypenko first disappeared, together with Yelizaveta Pavlenko, from Alushta soon after they took part in laying flowers at the monument to the great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko on 9 March, the 2007th anniversary of Shevchenko’s birth. Contact with them was lost the following day and it soon became clear that both had been detained by masked FSB officers. The latter carried out a search, lasting many hours, of Pavlenko’s home and took away various pieces of technology and other others, but did not arrest her.
Yesypenko was detained and has already been remanded in custody for two months. His wife reported at the time that he was charged under Article 223.1 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code, with this covering ‘the illegal manufacture, adaptation or repair of a firearm or its component parts, or the illegal manufacture of ammunition.
Earlier on 12 March, the FSB claimed to have, in cooperation with Russia’s police carried out operations in a number of Russian cities, as well as in occupied Crimea. They had, it was asserted, ‘broken up the activities’ of 72 individuals; confiscated 251 illegal firearms and closed down 37 underground workshops for modernising weapons and preparing ammunition.
Although it could be inferred that Yesypenko’s arrest was linked with this, there did grounds even then for suspecting a political motive, not least because the FSB had targeted two Ukrainians who had openly demonstrated their pro-Ukrainian views through the remembrance event at the monument to Shevchenko. The fact that independent lawyer Emil Kurbedinov was being prevented from seeing his client strongly indicated that the FSB had something to hide. In a statement issued on 16 March, prominent Ukrainian human rights groups pointed out that Violetta Sinyeglazova had been appointed without Yesypenko’s consent. This so-called lawyer has on several occasions appeared in politically motivated cases against Ukrainian citizens and has, the human rights defenders say, effectively represented the prosecution, not the suspect. They believe that the efforts to block proper legal defence point to the use of illegal physical and psychological force being brought to bear against Yesypenko.
It is possible that Yesypenko’s wife and Krym.Realii [Crimean Realities, a Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty project] were initially silent about Yesypenko’s work as a freelance journalist in the hope that the FSB were not aware of this. It is simply too dangerous for any journalists or bloggers living or at least spending time in occupied Crimea, to write under their own names, and Yesypenko undoubtedly wrote under a pseudonym.
The FSB clearly do know, and on 16 March, RFE/RL President James Fly issued a statement, saying that “At a time when the Kremlin is employing harassment and intimidation against any possible alternative voice in Russia-annexed Crimea, the recent detention of Vladislav Yesypenko, a freelancer for RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, is deeply troubling. Yesypenko should be released immediately, so that he can be reunited with his family”.
This followed a new announcement from the FSB which claimed to have “broken up spying and sabotage activities for the Ukrainian Security Service [SBU] by Russian citizen Vladislav Yesypenko.”
The FSB go on to say that Yesypenko “took photos and video footage of infrastructure and places where there are a lot of people in the republic of Crimea.”. The aim is clearly to suggest that he was up to no good, however none of this is illegal and the FSB do not appear to have had any evidence against Yesypenko when “in order to prevent Yesypenko carrying out acts of sabotage in the interests of the Ukrainian security service, he was detained” It was, after all, only then, while searching his car, that the FSB claim that they discovered what looked like a homemade explosive device.
They assert that Yesypenko has told them that he was gathering information for the SBU, and specifically for V Kravchuk, from the Foreign Intelligence Service, and that he was carrying the explosive device in his car, on Kravchuk’s advice, “for his personal safety”. All of this is ominously reminiscent of other arrests of supposed ‘Ukrainian saboteurs’, who were also prevented from seeing independent lawyers. In the majority of such cases, any ‘confessions’ extracted under such conditions have later been retracted, and in very many, the charges eventually laid bear little or no resemblance to the supposed confessions. Here, in fact, the FSB does not appear to have decided what the charges are, or is having difficulty in forcing Yesypenko to ‘cooperate’. The Russian newspaper Kommersant, for example, posts a video clearly circulated by the FSB, showing Yesypenko pinned to the ground and a search of his car. It states, however, that he is accused of a firearms charge only.
Yesypenko reportedly does not have a registered address in Crimea, however he did obtain Russian citizenship after 2014, which would suggest that he was, at least at that time, living in Crimea. It is not only Ukraine’s Foreign Intelligence Service and human rights groups who have pointed to Russia’s need for such a propaganda ‘saboteur arrest’ on the anniversary of its annexation of Crimea, to distract attention from real issues. Kommersant spells out that his arrest is on the seventh anniversary of Russia’s so-called ‘referendum’ (to mask its annexation of Crimea) and focuses on reports that Yesypenko was providing information about water supplies in Crimea. All very sinister, one is presumably supposed to think, but should not. Russia is responsible for the major water supply problems that Crimea is experiencing under its occupation. As well as constant attempts to blame Ukraine for this and threats of Russian and ‘international’ law suits, Russia may now be trying to concoct the latest of many implausible ‘Ukrainian saboteur’ trials, with journalist reports about a water crisis directly caused by Russia’s occupation, being treated as ‘spying’ or ‘sabotage’.