Savagely tortured Ukrainian journalist sentenced to six years by Russian occupation court
A court in occupied Crimea has sentenced Vladislav Yesypenko to six years’ imprisonment on farcical and clearly falsified charges. The Ukrainian journalist’s arrest, treatment and ‘trial’ were a clear attack both on individual journalists, and on RFE/RL’s Crimean Realities service which is one of the very few truthful sources of information about life and repression in occupied Crimea.
In his final address to the court on 15 February, Yesypenko called his case politically motivated and said that, in prosecuting a journalist from a Ukrainian publication, the FSB were probably demonstrating how unacceptable freedom of speech is in occupied Crimea. “Your Honour, I consider threats and torture in the XXI century to be unacceptable. I said earlier in court that in 1937, my grandfather was tortured and executed by firing squad. I have the impression that the chekists [from Cheka, the first Soviet secret police] who were around then have grandchildren and great grandchildren who are doing the same now as in 1937. I believe that labelling Crimean Realities a ‘foreign agent’ is pressure on the publication for which I work. They want to edit the work of free journalists who are trying to show what is really happening in Crimea. If there is no acquittal, this will be a sentence against the system since in Crimea, it is the FSB who rule. This is an axiom that will not change. If this continues, such a country has no future.”
This was indeed a political trial, with the sentence handed down on 16 by ‘judge’ Dlyaver Berberov from the Russian occupation Simferopol District Court despite evidence of torture and of banal fabrication of the charges against the freelance journalist. Berberov was doubtless aware of the absurdity of the charges and did in fact pass a sentence significantly lower than the 11 years demanded on 15 February by ‘prosecutor’ Yelena Podolnaya. As well as the six-year sentence in a medium security prison colony, Berberov added a fairly hefty fine (110 thousand roubles, or around 1300 euros).
The defence had demonstrated violations of Yesypenko’s rights, including the refusal to allow him to see independent lawyers during the first weeks after his arrest in March 2021. There were also very many procedural violations, not to mention the wrong version of the charge (the article of the criminal code), with the prosecution demanding 11 years over a version of the article that had not yet come into force.
Since Yesypenko was finally given access to independent legal defence, he has been represented by Dmitry Dinze and Taras Omelchenko, both of whom have earlier represented other Ukrainian political prisoners. Archbishop Klyment, Head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Crimea also took part as civic defender.
Yesypenko lives in mainland Ukraine with his wife and small daughter, Stefaniya, but worked as a freelance journalist for Crimean Realities.
Yesypenko was stopped by traffic police on the way to Simferopol, with the FSB then turning up and forcing him to the ground before the ‘search’ which is supposed to have found a grenade. Yesypenko 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.
He was indeed taken to a basement, somewhere in Bakhchysarai , where he was undressed, thrown to the floor and had wires attached to his earlobes. An electric current was then switched on, with the pain intolerable. Yesypenko says that when, at some point, his torturers understood from the reduced intensity of his screams that he was becoming accustomed to the pain, they increased the voltage.
Between bouts of torture, they fired questions at him, demanding that he confess to working for Ukraine’s security service, etc. If they didn’t like his answers, the torture would resume. He was also kicked if he stopped doing the push-ups they also demanded.
At some point he signed the papers they thrust in front of him, and was also forced to take part in a farcical ‘interview-confession’, saying that he had spied for the SBU.
The FSB prevented him from seeing a proper lawyer for around a month, almost certainly to ensure that the torture marks were not formally recorded. It was only during the first hearing, on 6 April, that the journalist was able to formally reject the services of the ‘lawyer’ foisted on him, Violetta Sineglazova and state that he wished to be represented by independent lawyers. He also described to the court the torture that he had been subjected to. He has provided harrowing accounts both of the initial torture and then of the threats he received from the FSB after that hearing.
Even without a forensic examination, this is not just a question of Yesypenko’s word against those of his torturers. There was no good reason for preventing him from seeing the lawyers of his choice, nor is there any credible explanation for the discrepancy between the original FSB reports and Yesypenko’s televised ‘confession’, and the actual charges laid. The 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.”, and this was what he was shown ‘confessing’ to on Russian-controlled television. Worth noting that, once the claims of collaboration with the Security Service are removed, the actual activities described in the FSB report were those of any journalist, with Yesypenko having “taken photos and video footage of infrastructure and places where there are a lot of people in the republic of Crimea”.
Dinze is a Russian lawyer and has pointed to a level of sloppiness in occupied Crimea not seen in Russia. In an earlier interview, he said that you get the impression 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.”
One other reason for the sense of impunity, unfortunately, is that ‘judges’ in such political trials provide the sentences demanded of them, as did Dlyaver Berberov on 16 February.