Fate of Ukrainian jour­nal­ist de­tained in oc­cu­pied Luhansk is still un­known

Kyiv Post - - Front Page - BY AL­LI­SON QUINN [email protected]

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)

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