Fate of Ukrainian journalist detained in occupied Luhansk is still unknown
Ukrainian journalist Maria Varfolomeyeva hasn’t been seen for more than six months ever since Russian-separatists took her captive in Luhansk Oblast.
Her only appearances have been limited to interviews with Russian media – and in them she can barely stop sobbing. Unlike high-profile prisoners like pilot Nadia Savchenko and film director Oleh Sentsov, Varfolomeyeva’s case has not gar- nered international attention.
Yet with the immediate release of all prisoners a top priority in the peace process, it should.
Varfolomeyeva, a journalist and activist covering the conflict in the east, disappeared on Jan. 9, 2015. Her family and friends only learned she’d been taken by separatists weeks later – on Jan. 31, when she was shown on separatist television.
Varfolomeyeva has been in captivity longer than any other journalist captured during the war, but her story has flown mostly under the radar.
“She hasn’t spoken to anybody by phone since she was taken prisoner, and the separatists don’t let anyone in to see her,” said Anna Rudenko, Varfolomeyeva’s colleague.
¬Russian-separatists want to place Varfolomeyeva in prison for up to 15 years for allegedly acting as a “spotter” for Ukrainian forces. She was arrested after she was seen taking photographs of residential buildings in Luhansk.
“They found photos of her wearing Right Sector logos on social media, photos that were taken as a joke, and used that as an excuse
for a bunch of different accusations – terrorism, diversionary activities, etc.,” Rudenko said, adding that Varfolomeyeva had been on assignment in Luhansk and was taking photographs for her work.
Despite reassurances from separatists that Varfolomeyeva is being held in acceptable conditions, activists working to free her say they aren’t so sure.
A phone call to the separatists’ press service for comment on Varfolomeyeva’s condition went unanswered on July 23.
“They haven’t let any of her friends or family see her. Her father is still trying to get access to this day. Negotiators insist she is being held in acceptable conditions and treated well. But there is no way to really confirm any of this,” said Konstantin Reutsky of Vostok SOS, a volunteer organization.
Activists have appealed to President Petro Poroshenko and Ukraine’s SBU security service to get Varfolomeyeva out, but so far to no avail.
“I don’t really see any results from the work of the SBU on this matter. They assure us that they are actively negotiating for her release, but I’m afraid these are just words,” Reutsky said.
Olena Hiklianska, a spokeswoman for the SBU, told the Kyiv Post that negotiations were ongoing for Varfolomeyeva’s release, but said she had no new information on the matter.
Varfolomeyeva has repeatedly been slated for release as part of the ongoing prisoner exchanges, but the process mysteriously gets derailed each time she is set to be exchanged, according to Oleg Kotenko of the Patriot volunteer group, which has been at the center of negotiations to secure the journalist’s release.
Varfolomeyeva was meant to be released on July 10, he said, but at the last minute the separatists refused to free her.
“This exchange should have taken place two-and-a-half months ago, but there is someone who just doesn’t want it to happen. And I suspect that it’s not the separatist side,” he said.
“If we had been in charge, we’d have exchanged not 10 people but 12, because that was the deal, she was supposed to be handed over to our group,” he said.
“She’s hanging in there for now,” he said, adding that another prisoner who’d been released said Varfolomeyeva was in an “okay condition” considering the circumstances.
“But we really have no way of knowing how they are treating her and what’s happening to her,” he said.
Earlier this month, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders condemned Varfolomeyeva’s detention and called for her release.
“This journalist, who was arrested for taking photographs, has been subjected to very strong psychological pressure, and then charged in a completely illegal way. We call on Luhansk’s self-proclaimed authorities to immediately free her,” Johann Bihr, the head of the group in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said in an online statement.
The journalist’s story is all too familiar in a war that has seen journalists kidnapped, beaten and held captive amid accusations of espionage. Abuse of journalists has not been limited to Ukraine’s occupied territories either, with Russia’s Federal Security Service cracking down on reporters who are openly critical in Crimea.
Human Rights Watch has issued a report documenting intimidation and harassment of journalists on the peninsula, warning that while all eyes are on the conflict in eastern Ukraine, human rights abuses are spiraling out of control in Crimea.
In mid-March, the FSB carried out a series of raids on journalists working for the Center for Investigative Journalism in Simferopol. Journalist Natalia Kokorina was detained and questioned, along with her colleague, Anna Andriyevska. The pair tied the incident to a story they had written about Crimeans fighting alongside Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian journalist Maria Varfolomeyeva hasn’t been seen for more than six months ever since Russian-separatists took her captive in Luhansk Oblast. (vk.com/ucrainc)