Sloppy trial of Ukrainian journalist shows that Russia's FSB fear no accountability in occupied Crimea
Russia’s case against Ukrainian journalist Vladislav Yesypenko, is full of bloopers; the FSB’s story is teeming with discrepancies and the attempt to link the journalist with Ukraine’s SBU [Security Service] has collapsed. This is the message from Yesypenko’s lawyer Dmitry Dinze, who has previously represented several Ukrainian political prisoners, including film director Oleg Sentsov. As in Sentsov’s ‘trial’, the lack of any evidence or credible charges does not mean that we can expect an acquittal, however Dinze is hoping to demonstrate the “absolute nonsense” behind the FSB’s attempt to increase the charges against Yesypenko and likely sentence. The problem is, as Dinze himself notes, that the situation for journalists is around 10 times worse in occupied Crimea, than in Russia, and the FSB are clearly confident of impunity for their violations. Yesypenko’s case has, he believes, highlighted just how dangerous it is to be a journalist in occupied Crimea. So too do the fabricated charges and huge sentences either imposed or likely in the case of at least ten imprisoned Crimean Tatar civic journalists.
Yesypenko is a freelance journalist who was on a job for RFE/RL’s Crimean Reality [Krym.Realii] Service when he was seized on 10 March 2021, with the FSB claiming to have found a grenade in his car. The ‘spying for Ukraine’s SBU [Security Service], that Yesypenko says he was tortured into ‘confessing’ to on Russian state-controlled TV, was initially reported but is not in the indictment. The latter, however, contains two charges: the lesser one (under Article 222.1 of Russia’s criminal code) of possession of an explosive, and the much more serious charge (Article 223.1) of ‘preparing or adapting an explosive’. All of this is based solely on the grenade which Yesypenko is supposed to have tampered with, yet which did not have his fingerprints on it. There have been seven hearings so far in the trial before ‘judge’ Dlyaver Verberov of the Russian-controlled Simferopol District Court. The prosecutor is Yelena Podolnaya, while Yesypenko is represented by Dinze and Crimean lawyer, Taras Omelchenko, with Archbishop Klyment, Head of the Ukrainian Church in Crimea as civic defender.
While a ‘conviction’ is probably predetermined, the defence have already made several FSB officers and other ‘witnesses’ for the prosecution squirm. Dinze described the court hearing where one of the FSB men claimed that Yesypenko had ‘voluntarily’ turned up at the FSB building in Simferopol on 11 March, after purportedly being released the previous day. The claim, mentioned in the case material and by an FSB officer in court, is a wildly implausible attempt to avoid admitting that Yesypenko was tortured in FSB custody for around 24 hours before he was ‘officially’ detained. His client is not an idiot, Dinze notes, and he would have needed to be very stupid or masochistic to have come back for more torture had the FSB seriously returned his documents, enabling him to leave Crimea.
The FSB have scarcely tried to make their story credible. When questioned, the FSB officer in charge of the operational material in the case claimed that he had released Yesypenko. When he was asked how all of that had been formally recorded and whether this was in the logbook, the officer went bright red and began swallowing nervously. He finally came up with the line that Yesypenko was merely shown to a room for the public in order to write his statement. This, however, will not wash, and Dinze points out that even defence lawyers invariably need passes to get into the FSB building. The officer is, quite simply, lying.
Dinze is also ensuring that the absurdities of the ‘SBU link’ are fully highlighted. He says that, having asked the FSB officers whether their actions had been because they suspected Yesypenko of committing some crime, they claimed that he “was collaborating with the SBU <> and wanted to bring even greater harm to Russia in Crimea.” This was, purportedly, by gathering information, although, when probed, they were forced to admit that they had not found “any particular facts” to back this, though continued to assert that they knew (as per the ‘confession’ that he has retracted) whom he collaborated with.
Dinze stresses the sheer absurdity of the charges, and the claim that a member of the Ukrainian SBU or their accomplice had hidden the grenade in a tree hollow. The explanation for this grenade borders on the surreal with the main motive claimed to have been because he supposedly needed it against some kind of “criminal” Tatars. Initially they claimed that an SBU officer had put it in the tree hollow for Yesypenko to take for self-defence. Then the SBU officer somehow ‘disappeared’. Dinze, however, did not let go and demanded to know whether they had tried to establish the identity of this mystery individual who had allegedly placed the grenade in a tree. He finally extracted an admission from the officers that no, “we don’t know who put the grenade in the tree hollow. And we also don’t know whom Yesypenko received the grenade from.” Worth noting that stories of equally sloppy implausibility have been used in the trials of other recognized political prisoners (Oleh Prykhodko; Oleksiy Bessarabov and Volodymyr Dudka, and others).
Dinze has plenty of experience in representing Russian political prisoners, however he is clearly shocked by the level of sloppiness he is seeing. He says that the FSB are normally more professional. Here “it’s as if some bloke with an axe set to work”. He has the impression, he says, that in Crimea FSB officers have so little fear of the law and of accountability that they prepare the prosecutions and operational material straight away, based on whatever crime they plan to charge the person with. “In Yesypenko’s case, all the documents have been drawn up as though they already knew which article of the criminal code they would apply and what the charge would be.”
The operational measures that they wanted to use against Yesypenko required a ‘grave’ or ‘particularly grave’ crime. Finding a grenade in a car could fall under ‘possession’ [Article 222.1] which is likely to get a suspended sentence. That was clearly not considered sufficient and Dinze is convinced that they started out planning to use Article 223.1, ‘illegal preparation or adaptation of an explosive, etc. which carries a sentence of 8-10 years.
There are further similarities with other political trials in occupied Crimea, including the fact that DNA was essentially taken illegally, twice without any lawyer present and once with the ‘lawyer’ foisted by the FSB, Violetta Sineglazova. DNA traces were allegedly found on the grenade, but no fingerprints, although the FSB is claiming that Yesypenko had adapted the grenade and no gloves were found in the car.
Yesypenko stated as soon as he was able to see an independent lawyer that the grenade had been planted in his car, and that his ‘confession’ had been tortured out of him. The use of both planted items and torture is standard in both occupied Crimea and Russia and Dinze is too realistic to believe that he can obtain a full acquittal. He does, however, plan to demonstrate in court that the more serious charge (under 223.1) is unwarranted, and that the claim that Yesypenko adapted the grenade “total nonsense”. The FSB needed there to be some change made to the grenade in order to be able to make the charge more severe, yet the changes made are essentially cosmetic. They do not make the grenade explode more powerfully, or mean that they can cause more harm. Dinze has consulted with experts who confirmed that this is totally absurd, and says that he hopes to obtain a specialist opinion to present to the court. If that charge can be removed, then any sentence would have to be very short.
Dinze acknowledges the problem that Yesypenko did provide the ‘confession’ demanded of him, before retracting it as soon as he was able to see a proper lawyer. While it is true, of course, that the FSB’s threats to kill a detainee once he is known to be in their custody (as opposed to many enforced disappearances) are bluff, the conditions in which the victim is held, and the lack of a genuine lawyer, make them terribly vulnerable. Yesypenko has given details accounts of the torture he endured.