Paris, May 6, 2022 — Ukrainian authorities should thoroughly investigate the recent attack on journalist Denis Staji, find those responsible, and hold them to account, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Friday.
Staji’s wife, Viktoryia Lavnikevich, told CPJ via messaging app that she lost contact with him on April 9 while she was in western Ukraine.
Lavnikevich returned to Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, on April 12 and found Staji at their apartment, unconscious and wrapped in garbage bags, with bruises and other signs of abuse all over his body, she said. In photos Lavnikevich posted to social media, Staji can be seen with deep bruises across his torso, arms, and feet, and with lacerations on his ribs, back, and buttocks.
Staji briefly regained consciousness before being transported to a local hospital and, while unable to speak, indicated with his hand that he had been beaten by five people. At the hospital, doctors told Lavnikevich that her husband appeared to have been beaten over at least three to four days, she told CPJ, saying the doctors estimated he would take several months to recover.
Lavnikevich told CPJ that the Ukrainian Security Service and the National Police were investigating the attack.
“The severe beating of Belarusian journalist Denis Staji by unidentified attackers in Ukraine is deeply shocking and disturbing,” said Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, in New York. “It is a welcome development that Ukrainian authorities are taking this case seriously. They should find the perpetrators as soon as possible and hold them accountable.”
Lavnikevich told CPJ that she had delayed publicizing the incident during the beginning of Ukrainian authorities’ investigation.
She told CPJ and wrote on Telegram that Staji had sustained memory loss and could not recall details of the attack. He was force-fed alcohol, sedatives, and cleaning liquid, was injected with an unidentified substance, and received several blows to the head, she said, adding that he also sustained severe damage to his nervous system and lungs.
Staji was found with a blanket over his head, dirt in his mouth, and handcuff marks on his wrists, and he showed signs of having been beaten on his head, ribs, kidneys, hands, and feet, and his right arm was “smashed to pieces,” his wife wrote.
Staji and Lavnikevich also jointly run the Telegram channel Adventures of Belarusians in Kyiv and moderate several Telegram chats aimed at the Belarusian diaspora in Ukraine. The channel and chats formerly shared general interest information, and more recently have shared critical reporting about the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, according to Lavnikevich and CPJ’s review of the accounts.
Lavnikevich told CPJ that she and her husband received anonymous death threats via Telegram in the summer or 2021 and briefly stop moderating those chat groups, but resumed their activity when the war in Ukraine started. She said that their Telegram activity has an audience of about 17,000, and that the Belarusian KGB had reached out to Staji after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and asked him to cooperate with them, but Staji refused.
Lavnikevich wrote on Telegram and told CPJ that she believed the attackers had targeted her husband, noting that “money and valuables [were] left in place” but the apartment was ransacked, and items related to their Telegram activity were missing.
In that Telegram post, Lavnikevich said she believed the attack on her husband may have been related to the 2021 death of Vitaliy Shyshov, a Belarusian activist in Ukraine and an acquaintance of Staji’s. Shyshov was found dead in Kyiv in August 2021, and Ukrainian police opened a murder inquiry after concerns were raised that his apparent suicide had been staged, according to media reports from the time. Lavnikevich told CPJ that the Ukrainian Security Service placed her and her husband under police protection for two months after Shyshov’s death.
CPJ emailed the Kyiv police and the Security Service of Ukraine for comment, but did not receive any replies.