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Torture, forced confessions, judged for journalism: a reporter in the penal colony

Published on May 2, 2024

Ukrainian article of the week published in the 28th edition of the "What about Ukraine" newsletter on May 2nd, 2024. The article was written by Oleksandra Yefymenko for The Ukrainians and was translated for n-ost by Tetiana Evloeva.

Check out the complete edition of this week's newsletter

The story of imprisoned journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko, sentenced by Russia to six years in a Crimean penal colony. By Oleksandra Yefymenko. Read the original article here.

Vladyslav Yesypenko is a freelance journalist at Krym.Realii (Crimea. Realities), a project created by the Ukrainian bureau of Radio Liberty. He was born on 13 March 1969, in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine.

Yesypenko was detained on 10 March 2021 while travelling on the mountainous Angar Pass between Simferopol and Alushta in occupied Crimea. The day before, he had filmed a commemoration of Taras Shevchenko, a historic symbol of Ukrainian nationhood, at an impromptu event in the peninsula. He was charged under Articles 223.1. of the Criminal Code of Russia, which includes the illegal manufacture of explosives, as well as illegal manufacture, processing or repair of explosive devices, and 222 of the same code – illegal acquisition, transfer, sale, storage, transportation or carrying of weapons, their main parts, ammunition.

A court in occupied Crimea sentenced the journalist to six years in a ‘General Regime’ colony. Later, a court of appeal reduced his prison term to five years. He is serving his sentence in Crimea’s Kerch colony No. 2.

Ukrainian and international human rights organisations insist there were political motivations behind his conviction. In 2021, Vladyslav was awarded the Levko Lukianenko State Scholarship Award and, in 2022, the PEN America Barbey Freedom to Write Award.


In Kryvyi Rih, at 3pm on 10 March 2021, Kateryna Yesypenko was trying to get in touch with her husband, Vladyslav, a freelancer for the Ukrainian bureau of Radio Liberty, and its Krym.Realii project. He was reporting from the ground in the occupied peninsula. Kateryna did not check in on her husband before this moment, as she knew he was conducting an interview in Simferopol.

“I knew he would be with someone, at whose place he stayed,” she says, “and I had this person’s contacts. I called her, and her phone was on, but she didn’t pick it up. I felt then: something has happened. But I thought this could be an accident, and that he was in hospital. I didn’t even imagine this involved the FSB. I found out about Vladyslav’s detention already after the authorities searched his vehicle, when the person who was with him during the detention called me from another phone and told me everything.”

At the Angar Pass, the Russian FSB stopped the journalist’s car, which contained Vladyslav and Yelyzaveta Pavlenko, a resident of Alushta. Later, she would appear in court as a witness in Vladyslav’s defence.

In the indictment, Russian prosecutor Serhiy Zayets formulated the reason for the journalist’s arrest as follows: “[He] agreed to take an RGD-5 hand grenade from a hiding place near the village of Pravda in the Pervomaiskyi district. On 23 February 2021, he took a grenade case with explosives and a UZRGM-2 hand grenade fuse from a hiding place, assembled them into one device, and transported it in his car.” Initially, documents from the Russian prosecutor’s office stated the reason for Yesypenko’s act was “self-defence against aggressive Tatars”. Later, the office changed the wording “to ensure personal safety”.

“I still don’t see why the FSB officers chose a grenade instead of a pistol for ‘self-defence against the Tatars’,” Vladyslav said in one of his letters from detention, quipping: “So, if ‘aggressive Crimean Tatars’ got to me, I’d have to blow them up with myself, despite my instinct for self-preservation?”

Joking in hell

Yesypenko carefully described how he testified against himself in letters handed over to the Krym.Realii editors and published there. He said he refused to sign a forced confession after the search — so, the Russian security forces promised to take him to another place, where they “cracked even more stubborn ones”. Vladyslav says they brought him to a building in the town of Bakhchysarai, took him to the basement, undressed him, and attached electric wires to his body. “They worked in concert and with no emotions. In pauses between the episodes of torture, they asked me questions,” he wrote. The journalist recalls that after hours of screaming and constant pain, his mouth was so dry that his tongue began bleeding.

Following the torture, the security forces offered him a choice: to suffer electric shocks, or to do push-ups on the floor.

Vladyslav chose the push-ups, but the abuse went on. The security officers sat him in a chair and taped him up. “I was joking darkly,” Vladyslav wrote in his letter, “like you can joke in hell. Lying in this basement, I told the FSB workers that with such physical activity here, one doesn’t need a gym. After that, they started kicking me even harder, and saying I was bullying them.”

The torture lasted for two days. This was so unbearable that the journalist was forced to testify against himself and he went on television, reading aloud a text written by the security forces.

“...I realised,” Vladyslav wrote, “that if I didn’t testify against myself, the FSB operatives would keep on ‘processing’ me and before my hearing I could, at least, become disabled or, at most, I simply wouldn’t live to see it.”

At the first hearing, in the courtroom in Simferopol, Vladyslav refused to confirm the confession he had given to the TV. He explained that this was signed under physical and psychological pressure. Almost a month later, Yesypenko had access to an independent lawyer. A FSB employee, Denis Korovin, came to Yesypenko in the detention centre, scolded him for “talking too much in court” and tried to persuade him to plead guilty. Once, the FSB guy brought a new tracksuit for the journalist to wear. He urged Vladyslav to refuse advice from the independent lawyer. When Vladyslav still did not agree, the agent argued: “But we bought you a tracksuit!” The FSB employee later denied the fact that he visited Yesypenko in the detention centre. None of the Russian security officials faced punishment for torturing the journalist.

The chair of the board of the Crimean Human Rights Group, Olha Skrypnyk, explains that the use of torture is a common FSB practice. “Even prior to the full-scale invasion, the Crimean Human Rights Group analysed all the open proceedings under the article ‘exceeding powers’ in Crimea,” she says. “This is the only article applicable to the FSB for torturing people. But no one has ever been convicted under this article since Crimea’s occupation.”

I myself, Oleksandra Yefymenko, was not allowed to attend the journalist’s trial. At that time, I was in occupied Crimea and worked as an independent journalist covering Ukrainian political prisoners. Before Vladyslav’s imprisonment, we did not know each other in person. I entered the court-room, and saw him for the first time in the dock - he was behind glass in the so-called ‘aquarium’. Before the trail began, the Russian judge, Diliaver Berberov, did not allow me to be present. During the proceedings, I sat in a coffee shop opposite the courthouse, where the Russian system was fabricating the case against my colleague. At the end of the process, when Vladyslav was taken out of the building and back to the detention centre, I came up to the door, standing there so that he could see me. I waved to him, and he sometimes waved back to everyone who came to support him.

“Journalism was presented as a crime”

Vladyslav saw the occupation of Crimea through his own eyes. He filmed much of his work on his phone: the Ukrainian military units occupied by the Russian army in Crimea, protests, the seizure of the territory by the Russian army, and activity at the polling stations during the so-called referendum. He gathered a lot of evidence, and after a few years, Yesypenko decided to return to cover events in thee peninsula. Vladyslav offered this archive of material to various Ukrainian media, and expressed his desire to continue working in Crimea.

“Still, the Ukrainian media tended to have little interest in the topic,” Kateryna recalls. “Vladyslav was, to put it mildly, much astonished by this fact. He couldn’t understand that Crimea was invaded in front of the whole world’s eyes, but the Ukrainian media refused to talk about it. Later, Vladyslav turned to the Krym.Realii project, and they started working together.”

Before becoming a journalist, Vladyslav was involved in the real estate business.

“I didn’t dissuade him from working in Crimea,” says Kateryna. “I never forbade anything or set any conditions. When it came to possible consequences for him due to his activities, he told me everything would be fine.”

The journalist wrote on social and environmental issues, and always used a pseudonym. His last published material when he was at liberty was a survey of the residents of the peninsula, where they detailed how their lives had changed during the seven years of occupation. He asked about the censorship of social networks, covered illegal sand mining on Crimea’s Bakalska spit, and described the state of the Tavriya Simferopol FC training grounds. All of Yesypenko’s material is free to see on the edition’s website.

Olha Skrypnyk emphasises that his case is one of the few examples of the persecution of journalists in Crimea, where the occupying authorities of the peninsula themselves admitted to being party: “In the evidence, especially when they started fabricating this against Vladyslav, they tried to use the video stories he filmed about ordinary Crimean life. Thus, his journalistic activities were clearly presented as a crime.”

During his last statement to the court in Crimea, Vladyslav said: “I consider this case to be political. Why? Because I’m a journalist for a Ukrainian publication and, most likely, FSB employees wanted to show how unacceptable freedom of speech is...”

Even behind bars, Vladyslav Yesypenko managed to continue his journalism. He recorded a conversation with his civil defender, the bishop of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Metropolitan Klyment of Simferopol and Crimea. While in captivity, he also interviewed another prisoner — a citizen of Ukraine, Kostiantyn Shyring, who was detained in April 2020 allegedly on suspicion of espionage and sentenced to 12 years in a special regime colony. Due to heart disease, Kostiantyn needed medical help, which he did not receive. Shortly after the interview, he died in colony No. 5 in the city of Novotroitsk, Orenburg region, Russia. The conversation recorded by Vladyslav and published by Krym.Realii was the first and the last interview with Kostiantyn Shyring.

Solace in prison with Erich Maria Remarque

The journalist is now serving out his sentence in Kerch colony No. 2. When he was in detention, he could not speak to his family by phone. The authorities have now restored this right. However, written correspondence is impossible. Paper letters from Ukraine do not reach Crimea, and the colony is not connected to the Russian Zonatelecom system (an official platform where one can write to a prisoner, and submit blank pages, where the prisoner can give a response).

“All the institutions where people are detained are a space of constant psychological pressure,” admits Kateryna, “and one must have the strength not to lose oneself there. It was hard for Vlad to stay in a closed cell with very limited space in the detention centre. When he came to the colony, we even joked that his conditions improved,” she laughs bitterly.

Yesypenko stays in one of the colony’s barracks, where thirty people are held at the same time. The colony has a makeshift sports stadium and a library. There, Vladyslav found a work by German novelist Erich Maria Remarque among the books on the history of Russia, tsarist Russia, and Lenin’s quotes. He is learning English, and his neighbour, who speaks the language well, helps him. Vlad uses the textbook on his own and practises conversation skills with his neighbour. In prison, he wrote a poem and music, as well as a script for the song’s video, which the journalist dictated to Kateryna.

Vladyslav is also working on a book. “It’s not a non-fiction account,” says Kateryna. “This is a book about his life in the colony, but it has fictional characters also spending their lives in prison.”

On his own stay in captivity, he told his wife: “Sometimes, it is extremely hard. Extremely.

“There’s no greater insult than a person being reduced to the state of a speechless animal with no rights.

“There’s no greater hell than day after day, month after month, for half a year already, to stay within four walls, to leave the cell, by order, to get a breath of fresh air, and to enter the cell again, being unable to change anything.”

“I won’t live under Russia”

Kateryna and Vladyslav met 13 years ago in a sports club. He proposed to his future wife during an Indian summer one evening in Yalta. In 2013, they settled in Sevastopol, but did not live there for long as Russia occupied the Ukrainian peninsula. Their daughter Stefania was born during the occupation. “I won’t live under Putin,” Yesypenko stated firmly, and the family returned to Kryvyi Rih with their little daughter. When Vladyslav was imprisoned, Stefania was six years old. When I first went to their apartment, and met Kateryna and Stefania, her father was on the news, and she was kissing the TV screen. Now she is nine years’ old.

“She’s already such a princess,” says Kateryna. “Stefania talks to her dad by phone, and it feels like she only lives when he’s around. They discuss literally everything, such as how she spends her time, and her friends.” A child psychologist consulted Stefania, and afterwards suggested that she seems to want to stay at the age when her father was imprisoned. Every year when she writes a letter to Saint Nicholas, she asks for her father to return home soon.

“She knows and understands everything,” says Kateryna. “She knows where her father is and why he is there. Our daughter can calmly talk about this with others.”

On Stefania’s birthday, her father communicated from prison. He congratulated his daughter and asked her not to give up her music and dancing classes: “Holding your small hands in my hands. That’s absolute happiness for me. And I’m sure it will come to be so!” Yesypenko told her.

Kateryna is now engaged in human rights activities. She says her work in this field is a direct consequence of Vladyslav’s imprisonment.

“My involvement in my husband’s work had an impact,” says Kateryna about her current activities. “Mostly, human rights defenders are now focused on documenting war crimes committed by the Russian Federation in Ukraine. I feel I’ve made a small contribution to holding Russia accountable. Some raise funds to buy drones. Some volunteer. Some evacuate the wounded. And I want the Russian Federation to face responsibility after our victory.”

Ukraine and Russia have agreed to exchange prisoners. What are the chances that Vladyslav could be part of this? Olha Skrypnyk says the Kremlin’s political prisoners are now, after the start of the full-scale invasion, considered civilian prisoners.

“Exchange processes are not a legal procedure,” she says. “This is not a case where we can say that a person definitely deserves it. The point here is that a person shouldn’t be behind bars in principle.”

During the entire war, there were at least three cases where Crimeans were released — Hennadiy Afanasyev, Ilmi Umerov and Akhtem Chiygoz, as well as the 2019 exchange, when Oleh Sentsov, Volodymyr Balukh, and Oleksandr Kolchenko returned.

But after the start of the full-scale war, this stopped. Russia deliberately avoids exchanging Crimean political prisoners, as it does not recognise that Crimea is part of Ukraine, so there are no prisoners to exchange from the peninsular.

“Of course, Vladyslav is on exchange lists, but currently we see no mechanisms for releasing civilians,” says Skrypnyk. A tool that could work, she argues, is if a coalition of nation states put pressure on Russia to release certain Ukrainians.