“Hell. Despair. The feeling of absurdity.” Ukrainian journalist jailed in occupied Crimea describes FSB torture in harrowing letters

Vladyslav Yesypenko under arrest. Graphics: RFE/RL 

Crimea, Political prisoners

Article by: Yuliia Rudenko
Edited by: Alya Shandra

Time passes but the Empire stands. Vladyslav Yesypenko, a Ukrainian freelance journalist, RFE/RL contributor, and grandson of Afanasiy Fursa, who the Soviet secret police executed on the accusation of being “an enemy of the people” in 1938, is awaiting his verdict 83 years later. And this is, just like in the case of his grandfather, only for his dissident views.

On July 6, the trial against Yesypenko will start in the Simferopol District Court. Four months before, on 9 March, he had filmed a flower-laying ceremony at the memorial of prominent Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko in Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea — an action reminiscent of days before the Russian occupation. And just the next day, Yesypenko was detained by the FSB. By means of torture, they extracted his false confession of alleged espionage for Ukraine‘s security services, he described in a letter.

This is the first time that a professional journalist has been subjected to torture in occupied Crimea to extract an incriminating testimony. This manifestly political legal action is not an isolated case. It is a part of Russia’s attack on freedom of the press that diffused into every corner of Crimea since 2014.

Vladyslav Yesypenko in the court on the defendants’ bench. Photo: Crimean Solidarity

Who is Vladyslav Yesypenko?

Vladyslav Yesypenko comes from Kryvyi Rih, a city in central Ukraine. A year before Russia occupied Crimea, he and his family moved to the peninsula. But in 2014, they had to flee and settle in mainland Ukraine, as Yesypenko could not condone the situation. Since the annexation, Yesypenko would go to the occupied peninsula to film for Crimean Krym.Realii project launched by RFE/RL.

Vladyslav Yesypenko and his wife Kateryna Yesypenko. Photo: Kateryna Yesypenko

The journalist’s wife Kateryna Yesypenko told Krym.Realii that Vladyslav’s decision to take the path of a journalist was prompted by the developments in Crimea following the occupation.

Illegal arrest and charges against Yesypenko: violations of the right to a fair trial

The moment of detention of Vladyslav Yesypenko by the FSB. Photo: Krym.Realii

10 March 2021 divides Vladyslav Yesypenko’s life into “before” and “after.” While in prison, he wrote a letter from prison describing his detention:

“It happened the day after I had filmed an action of laying flowers at Taras Shevchenko memorial. On 10 March, I was travelling from the South Bank to Simferopol. Near Perevalne village I was stopped by a State Traffic Safety Inspectorate officer.

Then FSB officers arrived and laid me to the ground. Then got me up and started a search in my car. I was outraged. I said FBS worked clumsily and they would hit a rough patch…But when I spotted a grenade just planted inside my car I realized that it would actually be me who would hit the rough patch. And it may apparently drag on.

I was forced to sign search reports. I refused and the FSB officer in a balaclava (apparently a senior) said that now we would go to another place, where I would sign everything he said; ‘we made worse guys spill their guts.’”

That is how the FSB managed to get “evidence” of alleged “keeping of explosives” — by planting grenades in Yesypenko’s car. Notably, the expertise failed to detect his fingerprints on the grenade.

Planting evidence is a trait of the FSB. That is exactly how former Kremlin’s Crimean activist and political prisoner Volodymyr Balukh was thrown behind bars. In 2016, Russian security officers conducted a search in his home and “found” 89 rounds of 5.45×39 calibre ammunition, also referred to as a “poison bullet” for its danger. This planted evidence became the legal basis to accuse Balukh of illegal possession of weapons.

Volodymyr Balukh. Photo: khpg.org

One wrongful accusation against Yesypenko did not seem enough for the FSB. Russian authorities claim that he also made photo and video recordings of location, vital infrastructure, and public places in Crimea for Ukraine’s special services. And the proof of “espionage” was literally beaten out of the journalist for Russian media.

While for 27 days from the arrest independent lawyers were prohibited from seeing Vladyslav Yesypenko, journalists of Russian state media Krym 24 were given a green light to interview him. They soon published a video of the Ukrainian journalist witnessing against himself.

Olha Skrypnyk, head of Crimea Human Rights Group, calls the interview a “mock interrogation” and Russian propaganda:

“[T]his questioning was conducted by a person calling himself journalist Kriuchkov. And this once again supports the stance of human rights defenders and journalists and this is a politically motivated case.

The video starts with propaganda that America’s [state funded] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty ordered some episodes… This actually testifies that the grounds for this prosecution are political. The interview is solely about the journalist activities of Vladyslav. But propagandist Kriuchkov calls it espionage.”

Olha Skrypnyk. Photo: RFE/RL

Public confessions also serve Russia’s goals of portraying Ukrainians as vicious criminals, Iryna Siedova, Crimea Human Rights Group expert, notes.

When Ukrainians, in particular activists, journalists, and other opponents to Putin’s regime, are portrayed as an “out-group,” they are likened to an enemy of Russia’s security, state, and thus, people. But Moscow’s serial fibbing to fabricate an enemy indicates that Putin dreads a pushback from his own nationals, who for many years live in a country of corruption, low living standards, and human rights abuses.
Ирина Седова

Iryna Siedova. Photo: RFE/RL

You may wonder how such committed journalists or activists as Yesypenko get led by the nose and tell everything the FSB wants? The answer is, there are no two ways about it. The FSB knows very well how to light a fire under the detainees by means of torture.

While all other who fall into the hands of the FSB in Crimea were either bloggers or citizen journalist, the case of Yesypenko is the first time when a professional journalist was subjected to such treatment.

Siedova notes that the FSB usually resorts to the same type of torture to extract public confessions. For example, a veteran in the Russia-Ukraine war Yevhen Panov was arrested by Russian special service officers in occupied Crimea on 7 August 2016, on alleged terrorism charges. Some four days later, he appeared in the video testifying against himself. Later, it became clear that Panov was forced to give testimony by means of torture with electric shocks. The method is the same but the only difference is that when Panov “confessed” to the detective, Yesypenko incriminated himself in the interview with Oleg Kriuchkov.

Yevhen Panov. Photo: khpg.org

In one of his letters, Yesypenko told about his torture:

“They took me on the bus, made me wear black glasses and headphones so that I could see and hear nothing. We drove for around an hour in total obscurity. At some point, I managed to partially take off the glasses and saw the road sign ‘Sevastopol ‒ 46 km.’ We stopped 10 minutes later. I realized we arrived in Bakhchysarai. They brought me to a basement and started to undress me silently.

… They shoved me to the ground, put wires with loops around my ears and put an electric current through my body. The pain was unbearable. They turned a blind eye to my screaming. The guys did their job cooperatively and bereft of emotions.

Between the torturing, they asked me questions, such as ‘what was the goal of our journey to Crimea,’ ‘we know you are a journalist but tell us about the orders from Ukraine’s special services,’ ‘when were you recruited,’ ‘what and where did film in Crimea,’ ‘what do you know about Colonel Kravchuk.’

…If they did not like the answer to any of their questions, they put on the wires again and turned on the electricity. At some point, I realized that I can bear the pain and as my cries became weaker, the FSB officers, apparently professionals, assessed the situation and increased the current so that the pain would become unbearable again.

***

My tongue cracked and began to bleed. Maybe because of the current, or maybe because I bit it hard when screaming. When I started spitting out blood, the FSB officers ‘with care’ brought water and even took me to the toilet.

One of the ‘kind’ officers asked me how much I get paid for my materials and said that in Russia, I would be paid 10 times more. Then, the ‘kind’ one assumed I was not frank enough and ordered me to get down and do push-ups. If I got tired and stopped, they would beat me by kicking. I got tired pretty soon and got kicks to the upper body and groin.

During the torture, the ‘kind’ one demanded I scream ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ I replied, ‘For real, glory to the heroes!’ I used their prison slang so this would sink in. Then I was interrogated again. This ‘kind’ officer offered me to choose a type of torture between push-ups and electric current. I picked the former but they started to apply the current again. Only this time, they taped me to the chair.

After one of the strongest blasts, I jumped up on the chair tearing the tape and a black mask from my face. And I saw we were in a basement with no windows. I also saw five FSB officers in balaclavas. They tortured me with a device resembling a military field telephone. They knocked me over and taped me to the chair again to continue the interrogation.

Later, a woman came to the basement (probably, another FSB officer), put sensors on my fingers, and started a lie detector test. I was asked the same questions. Afterward, I signed some papers and spoke on camera that I am a spy and performed the tasks from the Security Service of Ukraine.

Hell. Despair. The feeling of the absurdity of events. I admit I made dark jokes in critical moments. The way one can joke in hell. Standing in the position for push-ups, I told FSB officers that with such exercise, I don’t need to go to the gym. For that, they started kicking me more harshly and said I was making fun of them…”

Vladyslav Yesypenko in the court. Photo: Crimean Solidarity

Strong in spirit, Vladyslav indicated tortures from Russian special services in court. As lawyer Aleksei Ladin noted, Yesypenko received death threats from the FSB following this confession.

The journalist also waived legal counsel from state-appointed Violetta Siveglazova, whom Skrypnyk called a “lawyer on order,” as in many politically motivated actions she “represents the interests of the prosecution and not the defendant.”

Yesypenko wrote about the first meeting with Siveglazova the next day after the arrest, where he encountered manipulations:

“A plump lady with kind features told me that if I confess, I will be free in three years instead of six. Detective Vlasov promised assistance in receiving products, clothes, and, as the key argument, a chance to call my wife in mainland Ukraine (although ‘it is forbidden,’ he said). I realized that if I don’t get private honest lawyers and a connection with mainland Ukraine, I don’t have much of a chance.”

Now Vladyslav Yesypenko remains under arrest in a remand center at least until 11 July 2021. He shares his reflections in the letter, calling Russian prison a hall of trick mirrors (emphasis ours).

“Here, in the remand center, everything resembles a ‘kingdom of distorting mirrors.’ Nothing demonstrates the ugly nature of the occupation authorities like the constant replenishment of prison cells with new defendants arrested on trumped-up charges. Virtually every day new people end up in a remand center. They are arrested on espionage, terrorism, dissemination, and propaganda of religions forbidden in Russia.

I have seen three guys, one of them just turned 18 at the moment of the arrest. They are incriminated with terrorism (one of them is Valentyn Khoroshavin). Allegedly, they hung up leaflets with Ukrainian symbols and planned to blow up a market in Simferopol city.

What else is there to say! Consider that I got acquainted with an absolutely blind guy who walks with a cane. He is considered the leader of a terrorist cell in Crimea!

Vladyslav expressed gratitude to everyone who supports him. He also “thanked” the FSB:

“Thank you FSB Russia for giving an RFE/RL freelance journalist an unprecedented chance not only to become an observer in a prison cell in occupied Crimea but also learn from the School of Hard Knocks their methods of ‘investigation’ that make one go crazy or peg out.

This did not break me, but it seems my hair has turned grey.”

The United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine continues receiving claims on the use of torture by Russian security services to persons in custody in Crimea. Oftentimes, confessions extracted by torture become the only evidence to convict innocent people.

A judge in the case of a Crimean defendant who declared he had been tortured, said:

“Why are you telling us all of this? We are here only to decide on your preventive measure.”

In Crimea, a press card does not protect from torture. Putin views independent journalism as a threat to his regime of tyranny and violence in the peninsula. Hence, “the course [is] taken by the new authorities from the moment of the occupation in 2014 to totally suppress independent journalism and establish full control over Crimea’s information space continues,” the Justice for Journalists Foundation notes in their report Attacks on media workers in 2020.

Today, nine Crimean citizen journalists and Vladyslav Yesypenko remain in Russian custody, according to Ukraine’s Foreign Office data as of 6 June 2021.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, the Ombudsman, the European and International Federations of Journalists, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s President Jamie Fly called for the urgent release of Vladyslav Yesypenko.

Your voice also makes a difference. Here is what you can do:

1. Join the online flashmob by posting a photo of Vladyslav Yesypeko and hashtags #FreeYesypenko and #CrimeaisUkraine on your social media.

2. Write a letter of support to Vladyslav Yesypenko and send it to [email protected] or Kateryna Yesypenko’s Facebook.

3. If you live in Kyiv, join the action of solidarity with the journalist today, on 6 July 2021, at 6 pm Kyiv time.

Edited by: Alya Shandra

Ukraine needs independent journalism. And we need you. Join our community on Patreon and help us better connect Ukraine to the world. We’ll use your contribution to attract new authors, upgrade our website, and optimize its SEO. For as little as the cost of one cup of coffee a month, you can help build bridges between Ukraine and the rest of the world, plus become a co-creator and vote for topics we should cover next. Become a patron or see other ways to support. Become a Patron!

Tags: , , , , ,