Vladislav Yesypenko

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Ukrainian journalist Vladislav Yesypenko is serving a five-year prison sentence after being convicted by a court in Simferopol, the capital of Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Crimea, of possessing and transporting explosives in February 2022. Russia Federal Security Service (FSB) officers detained him in March 2021. He was initially sentenced to six years in prison in February 2022, but the term was reduced by a year on appeal in August 2022.

Yesypenko was given a Russian passport after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, according to the Russian independent human rights organization Memorial.

Leading up to his arrest, Yesypenko, a freelance correspondent for the U.S. Congress-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), had published video interviews about social and ecological issues in Crimea, including 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. He primarily contributed to Krym.Realii, a Crimea-focused outlet run by RFE/RL, according to the news service.

Russia has enforced its laws in Crimea since it annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in March 2014, including imposing substantial restrictions on media freedom, according to Freedom House’s 2023 Freedom in the World report. The number of media outlets in Crimea was reduced by more than 90% under a 2015 reregistration process overseen by Russian state media regulator Roskomnadzor, and Russian authorities have restricted access to Ukrainian television and other media outlets, according to Freedom House. Since taking control, Russian authorities have systematically prosecuted journalists and activists who questioned the annexation. 

On March 10, 2021, Yesypenko was driving his car through the Angarsky mountain pass in Crimea when state security officers stopped him, searched his vehicle, and took him to the FSB headquarters in Simferopol, according to Krym.Realii.

The Kyiv District Court of Simferopol charged Yesypenko on March 12, 2021, with the “illegal production, repair, or modifying of firearms” and ordered him to be held for two months awaiting trial, according to Krym.Realii and a joint statement issued by several Ukraine-focused human rights organizations.

On March 16, 2021,the FSB published a statement accusing Yesypenko of espionage on behalf of Ukraine. In the 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. 

Yesypenko was 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. Prison authorities said that the journalist had denied the services of two other lawyers but were unable to provide any documents showing that Yesypenko had made those decisions himself, according to a lawyer hired by his family, Emil Kurbedinov, who spoke with CPJ in a phone interview at the time. 

Kurbedinov, who was not allowed to see Yesypenko, said he believed the journalist may have been coerced into confessing to crimes he did not commit. Yesypenko was later granted independent defense lawyers, according to the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG), an independent human rights organization based in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. 

At a hearing on September 6, 2021, Yesypenko said he had been subjected to electrical shocks in detention, reports said. 

On February 16, 2022, a court in Simferopol convicted Yesypenko on charges of possessing and transporting explosives and sentenced him to six years in prison and a fine of 110,000 rubles (US$1,750), according to reports by his employer and other news outlets

Yesypenko maintained his innocence throughout the closed-door trial and testified that authorities “want to discredit the work of freelance journalists who really want to show the things that really happen in Crimea,” according to RFE/RL.

RFE/RL’s then-CEO Jamie Fly called Yesypenko’s sentencing and conviction a “travesty,” demanded his release, and said the journalist was doing nothing more than reporting the facts,” according to the report.

On August 18, 2022, a court in Simferopol reduced on appeal Yesypenko’s sentence to five years in jail, his wife, Kateryna Yesypenko, was quoted as saying by Krym.Realii. She said Yesypenko will file a further appeal.

Kateryna Yesypenko told CPJ on October 13, 2023, that her husband was still serving his sentence in the Correctional Colony No. 2 in the Crimean city of Kerch, and that she had last spoken to him over the phone the day before. 

She said that he did not have any health complaints and was not physically ill-treated. The prison administration had previously told Yesypenko that the conditions of his detention might worsen if he were to file complaints, she said. The journalist could not apply for early release following an order from the FSB, said Kateryna Yesypenko, adding that his lawyer was prevented from starting cassation proceedings. 

In October 2023, CPJ emailed the press service of the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office for comment but did not receive any replies.