Journalist Vladislav Yesypenko was recently detained in Russian-occupied Crimea and accused of espionage. (Photo: Family archive via Yekaterina Yesipenko, RFE/RL)

RFE/RL contributor Vladislav Yesypenko arrested, accused of espionage in Crimea

New York, March 18, 2021 – Russian authorities should immediately release journalist Vladislav Yesypenko and drop all charges against him, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On March 10, Federal Security Service officers in Russian-occupied Crimea detained Yesypenko, a freelance journalist, according to news reports and a lawyer hired by his family, Emil Kurbedinov, who spoke with CPJ in a phone interview but who has been prevented from meeting his client.

Yesypenko frequently contributes to Krym.Realii, a Crimea-focused outlet run by the Ukrainian-language service of the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, according to a report by RFE/RL.

On March 12, the Kyiv District Court of Simferopol, the Crimean capital, charged Yesypenko with “illegal production, repair, or modifying of firearms,” and ordered him to be held for two months awaiting trial, according to a joint statement issued by several Ukraine-focused human rights organizations, and those news reports. On March 16, the Federal Security Service published a statement accusing Yesypenko of espionage on behalf of Ukraine.

In that statement, the FSB alleged that Yesypenko confessed to being a spy for the Ukrainian Security Service and carrying a homemade explosive device in his car. Kurbedinov told CPJ that he believed Yesypenko may have been coerced into confessing to crimes he did not commit.

“Russian authorities should release journalist Vladislav Yesypenko immediately, drop the trumped-up charges against him, and stop harassing and intimidating Crimean journalists,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator. “Russian authorities’ evolving accusations and the fact that Yesypenko has not seen the lawyer chosen by his family signals that these charges are fabricated and are designed to silence and intimidate the local press.”

Yesypenko was driving his car through the Angarsky mountain pass when officers stopped him, searched his vehicle, and took him to the Federal Security Service headquarters in Simferopol, according to Kurbedinov. He remains in pretrial detention in Simferopol, according to reports.

Kurbedinov told CPJ that Yesypenko’s wife, Yekaterina, hired him on March 10 to defend her husband, but said authorities did not allow him to see his client.

On March 15, the investigator on Yesypenko’s case told the lawyer that the journalist refused his services. Later that day, Yesypenko’s wife hired another lawyer, Aleksey Ladin, but an employee of the detention center said the journalist refused his assistance as well, according to Kurbedinov.

Yesypenko has been assigned a state-appointed lawyer, Violetta Sineglazova, according to the human rights groups’ statement, which expressed concern that the lawyer would not provide a proper defense. Kurbedinov told CPJ that neither lawyer was shown any written documents that would confirm Yesypenko’s refusal to work with them.

RFE/RL Acting Director of Communications and Public Affairs Martins Zvaners told CPJ via email, “No matter what may be said by others, the motivation for the state-sponsored harassment of Vladislav Yesypenko seems clear: he was detained on Russia-annexed Crimea because of his journalistic activity.”

If convicted on firearms charges, Yesypenko could face up to six years in prison; if convicted of espionage, he could face up to 20 years, according to Russian law.

The Ukrainian Foreign Intelligence Service posted a statement on its official Facebook page that, without mentioning Yesypenko by name, described allegations of “Ukrainian intelligence agency’s activity in the territory of the occupied Crimea” as part of a Russian “propaganda action.”

Yesypenko’s recent coverage includes video interviews about social and ecological issues in Crimea, such as the lives of Crimean Tatars in a village without electricity, the destruction of a Crimean nature reserve, and the decaying state of training facilities for Crimean football teams.

Since the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Russian authorities have systematically prosecuted journalists and activists who questioned the annexation, according to CPJ research.

CPJ emailed the Ukrainian Foreign Intelligence Service and the Russian Federal Security Service for comment. The Ukrainian service replied with a link to its statement on Facebook; the Russian service did not respond.