Ukraine: Abducted journalists and officials must be released

Journalists and officials being unlawfully detained and used as “bargaining chips” by a separatist armed group in eastern Ukraine must be released immediately, Amnesty International said, noting they could be at risk of torture and other ill-treatment. 

The Kyiv Post has reported that at least 16 people have been abducted since last week in Slovyansk and Horlivka, both in the eastern Ukrainian Donetsk region, where a pro-Russian armed group has seized control. Three foreign journalists have been released, but several other journalists and officials remain in detention or unaccounted for. Two previously abducted men were found dead on Tuesday, their corpses reportedly bearing signs of torture.

In a press conference on 23 April, the self-proclaimed “People’s Mayor” of Slovyansk Vyacheslav Ponomarev, said some of the detainees were being held as “bargaining chips” and he had no intention of letting them go. He accused the Kyiv government of detaining and torturing his “comrades”. 

“The ongoing detention of journalists, municipal officials and residents by an armed group in Slovyansk speaks volumes about the lawlessness that has crept into parts of eastern Ukraine and raises fears the detainees could be at risk of torture and other ill-treatment. Taking hostages and using them as bargaining chips for political gain is as abhorrent as it is unlawful,” said Heather McGill, Ukraine Researcher at Amnesty International.

“The harassment, abduction and detention of journalists constitute a serious blow to freedom of expression and must be halted immediately. Anyone unlawfully detaining journalists or others in eastern Ukraine must guarantee their safety and release them immediately and unconditionally.”

Amnesty International’s call comes as the Ukrainian armed forces launched an offensive to retake control of Slovyansk on 24 April. 

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe has also expressed concern about the abductions and called for the journalists’ immediate release.

String of abductions in Slovyansk 

There has been a worrying string of abductions in eastern Ukraine over the past 11 days. The incidents coincide with a pro-Russian armed group taking control of police stations and public offices in several cities, including the Ukrainian State Security Service (SBU) building in Slovyansk. Their purported leader, Vyacheslav Ponomarev, has proclaimed himself Slovyansk’s mayor.

According to media reports, Slovyansk resident Artem Deynega was abducted on 13 April by unidentified people after he was seen filming from a balcony across the street from the SBU building. Three days later, Ukrainian journalist Serhiy Lefter was similarly taken captive while reporting in the city. Their whereabouts remain unknown.

On 18 April, Nelya Shtepa, the elected Mayor of Slovyansk, disappeared after attempting to meet with Vyacheslav Ponomorev. It is believed she remains in captivity after an appearance on 22 April on LifeNews, a pro-Kremlin television station in Russia. 

Meanwhile, a Slovyansk police chief, Oleg Prokhorov, has been missing since 19 April. His whereabouts are unknown and it is believed he is also being held by the armed group. 

On 20 April, Irma Krat, a former leader of the EuroMaydan protests in Kyiv and editor of Ukraine’s Hidden Truth TV, was abducted after travelling to Slovyansk to cover the recent events. Her lawyer believes she is being held in the SBU, which remains under the control of the pro-Russian armed group. It has accused her of involvement in the alleged torture and killing of a Berkut riot police officer several months ago amid protests in Kyiv, charges she has denied. 

A day after Irma Krat’s abduction, the pro-Russian armed group called a news conference where she was paraded in front of national and international media. Journalists were then prevented from leaving the briefing, and at least one foreign reporter was subsequently abducted. 

Also on 21 April, three other foreign journalists were temporarily detained by gunmen manning a checkpoint in the city. The three – two Italians and one Belarusian – were later released but they reportedly had their equipment confiscated. 

Tortured and killed

In another grim development, on 22 April, the bodies of two men were found near the river Torets in Slovyansk, bearing signs of torture. 

One of them has been identified as Volodymyr Rybak, a Horlivka city council member from the Batkyvshchyna Party who was reportedly abducted on 17 April. Video footage taken that day and posted on a local news site showed the official being violently attacked by several men, one of whom was masked and wearing camouflage. According to the Kyiv Post, Volodymyr Rybak’s body was found tied to a sandbag and with a slash across his stomach, and it is believed he was still alive when he was thrown into the river. 

“This grisly and shocking discovery must serve as a wake-up call to everyone in eastern Ukraine. An independent, impartial and thorough investigation must be carried out into these killings, with all those responsible brought to justice,” said Heather McGill.