war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Russian FSB torture Ukrainian journalist 84 years after Stalin’s NKVD killed his grandfather

Halya Coynash
Vladislav Yesypenko in court Photo Crimean Solidarity

The FSB in Russian-occupied Crimea have announced the completion of their ‘investigative measures’ with respect to Ukrainian journalist, Vladislav Yesypenko, who was arrested on 10 March 2021, shortly after he and a friend lay flowers at the monument to the great Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. Yesypenko has now been able to describe the ‘measures’ applied while he was held without access to independent lawyers.  They differ little from those used against other Ukrainians seized and tortured for televised ‘confessions’, however this is the first time that a journalist in occupied Crimea on a work assignment has been arrested and detained on almost certainly trumped-up charges.

Yesypenko is a freelance journalist, working for Radio Svoboda’s Crimean Service (Krym.Realii}.  He left Crimea with his wife, Yekateryna and their baby daughter, Stefania, at the beginning of 2015 and had gone to Crimea on 23 February.  He wrote about life in occupied Crimea, including about the problem with water supplies which Russia is unable to resolve.  As with reports on repression that have led to around 10 Crimean Tatar civic journalists being arrested, Yesypenko’s account of the water shortage may have annoyed the occupation regime, but fell entirely within his job description as a journalist.  

On 20 May, Krym.Realii posted a letter from Yesypenko, probably passed to them via his lawyer.  Yesypenko explains that he is the grandson of a victim of Stalin’s Terror, Anastasiy Fursa, who was executed on 9 May 1938. 84 years later, only now in Crimea, “I am awaiting the sentence of a totalitarian regime. In the same way as my grandfather, an ‘enemy of the people’ and a father of five, was waiting”.

He was arrested the day after he filmed the flower-laying at the monument to Taras Shevchenko.  In a free country, this might not be an obvious subject for a journalist’s report.  In Russian-occupied Crimea, however, like under the Soviet regime, such flower-laying does require courage and can cause problems.

On this occasion, the problems were for the journalist, although the friend he was with, Yelizaveta Pavlenko, was also subjected to a long search.  Yesypenko was stopped by traffic police on the way to Simferopol, with the FSB then turning up and forcing him to the ground. They immediately began a search of his car.  He writes that he was initially indignant and said that the FSB were bringing a whole heap of problems on themselves.  Then he caught side of the grenade they had (in his words) planted, and he understood that the heap of problems was being prepared for him.  He refused to sign the protocols of this ‘search’ and was told by an FSB officer in a balaclava that they would take him to another place where he would sign everything they told him to.

They drove him to Bakhchysarai, brought him to a basement and began silently undressing him. He tried to resist, but since he was in handcuffs and there were four of them this was futile. “They threw them to the floor, attached wires with loops to my ears and turned on the electric current. The pain was unendurable. Nobody paid any attention to my screams. The men worked in coordination, without emotion.

In the pauses between torture, they asked me questions. “The purpose of your visit to Crimea”; We know you’re a journalist, but tell us about your tasks from Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU]”; “When were you recruited?”; “What did you photograph in Crimea and where?”; “What do you know about lieutenant Kravchuk?” “  <>

“If they didn’t like my answer to this or that question, they again put the wires in and turned on the current.  At some point I understood that the pain could be endured, and since my cries became weaker, the FSB men, presumably professionals, having assessed the situation, increased the voltage of the current and the pain again became intolerable.”

His tongue began bleeding, either from the current, or because he bit in while screaming from the pain, and at one point, he began spitting out blood. Later they made him do push-ups until he was too tired to continue, at which point they began kicking him.

One of the FSB men demanded that he shouted “Glory to Ukraine!”.  His response was (the customary) “Glory to the heroes”, although he prefaced it with their prison slang “so that it would be more understandable”.  The same FSB man claimed that Yesypenko could choose his form of torture for the next stage of the ‘interrogation’.  He chose the push-ups, but they used electric shocks everyway, only this time tying him with tape to the table.

At one point, the electric shock was so acute that he broke free from the tape and pulled the black mask from his eyes.  He was in a basement without any witnesses, and there were five FSB torturers, all wearing balaclavas.  Another individual turned up, this time a woman, and attached some kind of lie detector contraption to his fingers. It was after this that he signed some kind of papers and said on video that he was ‘a spy’, carrying out SBU tasks.

For almost a month after his arrest, the FSB prevented lawyers Emil Kurbedinov and Alexei Ladin from seeing Yesypenko and falsely claimed that the journalist had himself said he did not want them to represent them.  They are convinced that this was to ensure that the torture marks had first faded. The FSB, and specifically ‘investigator’ Vitaly Vlasov instead brought him Violetta Sineglazova, a ‘lawyer’ who has already demonstrated in other cases that she essentially works for the prosecution. 

It was only during a court hearing on 6 April that the FSB were no longer able to prevent Yesypenko from communicating with a real lawyer.  During that hearing, Yesypenko formally rejected Sineglazova’s ‘services’.  He also provided a shorter written account of what had happened from when he was detained, including details of the torture until he gave the ‘confession’ required.  He mentioned then that the FSB had also taken him to Armyansk where he was videoed pointing to what was claimed to be the hiding place from which he had supposedly taken the grenade.

It has been established since that his finger prints were not on the grenade allegedly found in his car.

Yesypenko is demonstrating courage in continuing to speak out.  After that initial hearing, Ladin reported that the FSB had threatened to kill Yesypenko if he didn’t ‘cooperate’, telling him that it would be reported that he had hanged himself while alone in his cell.   

The initial announcement from the FSB on 16 March claimed to have “broken up spying and sabotage activities for the Ukrainian Security Service by Russian citizen Vladislav Yesypenko.”.   Despite the mention of Ukraine’s Security Service, or SBU, the FSB was essentially describing a journalist’s work, with Yesypenko having “taken photos and video footage of infrastructure and places where there are a lot of people in the republic of Crimea”. 

Yesypenko and his lawyers are now due to view the prosecution’s ‘case’.  Earlier Ladin reported that  two charges - of illegally preparing an explosive device (Article 223.1 of Russia’s criminal code) and of illegally possessing an explosive device (Article 222) had been combined into one prosecution.  Although the FSB claim that they detained the journalist “so as to prevent him carrying out acts of sabotage in the interests of the Ukrainian security service”, that does not appear to be reflected in the charges.  This too is reminiscent of many other prosecutions of Ukrainians whose videoed ‘confessions’ prove to have little in common with the charges for which they are eventually tried (and invariably convicted).

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