October 25, 2019



Journalist sentenced to 15 years

A court established by Russia-backed “separatists” who hold parts of eastern Ukraine has sentenced journalist Stanislav Aseyev, an RFE/RL contributor, to 15 years in a penal colony. The separatist news outlet DAN reported on October 22 that the court had found Mr. Aseyev guilty of espionage, extremism and public calls to violate the territory’s integrity. Mr. Aseyev, who wrote under the pen name Stanislav Vasin, disappeared in Ukraine’s Donetsk region on June 2, 2017, and has been held in detention since by the separatists. “The conviction against Stanislav Aseyev, which dates from August but was made public only today, is reprehensible,” said RFE/RL President Jamie Fly. “Stas is a journalist and was only trying to raise awareness about the situation in eastern Ukraine. The ruling is an attempt by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk to silence his powerful, independent voice. Stas should be released immediately,” Mr. Fly added. The 30-year-old journalist was one of the few reporters in Donetsk who continued to work in the city after it came under the control of the separatists. Representatives of the militants accused Mr. Aseyev of observing the deployment sites of their paramilitary groups and passing on the information to the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), according to the news outlet Hromadske. In August 2018, the bipartisan U.S. Congressional Press Freedom Caucus called for Mr. Aseyev’s immediate release, describing him as “one of the few independent journalists to remain in the region under separatist control to provide objective reporting.” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also called for Mr. Aseyev’s release in July. The media rights group Reporters Without Borders has also voiced concern about Mr. Aseyev’s treatment, which it has called “increasingly disturbing.” (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)


Jailing of journalist is condemned

International media-freedom watchdogs and the Ukrainian government have strongly condemned the “illegal” and “unacceptable” sentencing of journalist Stanislav Aseyev, an RFE/RL contributor, by a court established by Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of eastern Ukraine. “I am shocked by his completely illegal conviction and sentencing,” the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Harlem Desir, said in a statement, reiterating his call that Mr. Aseyev must be “released immediately.” RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has called the ruling against Aseyev “an attempt by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk to silence his powerful, independent voice” and along with Mr. Desir urged the release of Oleh Halaziuk, a contributor of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service who has been held by separatists in Donetsk since August 2017. The two journalists “were among the very few independent journalists who worked and reported from the non-government-controlled area of Donetsk region,” the OSCE representative said. “The silencing of independent journalists is a crime against the freedom of expression and it is unacceptable,” Desir added. In New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said the “so-called court” that convicted and sentenced Aseyev was “not legitimate.” Gulnoza Said, CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia program coordinator, noted in a statement that Mr. Aseyev “is neither a spy nor extremist,” but “a journalist who was providing a rare glimpse into the life of ordinary people” in the separatist-controlled region. The European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) said “the mistreatment of [Aseyev] and now the harsh sentence are blatant violations of media freedom.” EFJ General Secretary Ricardo Gutierrez said, “The authorities must stop criminalizing journalists and depriving their rights to exercise freedom of speech.” The Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Ministry also condemned the “unlawful“ verdict, and noted that “illegal imprisonment is a criminal offense in Ukraine.” It added, “All those involved in the detention of [Aseyev] will be prosecuted in accordance with the Criminal Code of Ukraine.” (RFE/RL)


Ambassador: Trump linked aid to probe

A top U.S. diplomat has said President Donald Trump wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate his political opponent before agreeing to release military aid or a White House meeting. U.S. Charge d’Affaires to Ukraine William Taylor made the comment in opening remarks on October 22 in a closed-door session in front of three congressional panels as part of the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump’s dealings with Kyiv. The remarks by Mr. Taylor – who served as ambassador to Ukraine in 2006-2009 under President George W. Bush – add more force to the impeachment inquiry that was launched a month ago to determine whether Mr. Trump pressured Mr. Zelenskyy during a July 25 phone call to investigate Joe Biden, a Democrat who is seeking to unseat the U.S. president in 2020. At the time of the call, Mr. Trump was withholding $391 million in military aid to Ukraine. Mr. Trump, who has called the impeachment probe a “witch-hunt,” has denied there was quid pro quo at play with the Ukrainian president, who sought a White House meeting to demonstrate he had U.S. support. However, Ambassador Taylor’s testimony described the U.S. president’s demand that “everything” Mr. Zelenskyy wanted, including vital military aid, was contingent on making a public vow that Ukraine would investigate Democrats and an energy company linked to Mr. Biden’s son Hunter. After his testimony, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham released a statement, labeling what Ambassador Taylor said as “triple hearsay” while insisting President Trump “has done nothing wrong.” The career diplomat laid out in his 15-page opening statement a timeline of events that showed how U.S. policy toward Ukraine began in May to move simultaneously along two divergent paths: one pursued by the National Security Council to maintain support for Ukraine and one driven by Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to entice its young leader to investigate Mr. Biden and possible interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Mr. Giuliani has claimed that Mr. Biden, who oversaw U.S. policy toward Ukraine while serving as vice president to Barack Obama, ordered Kyiv to fire its prosecutor-general to halt an investigation into gas producer Burisma. Hunter Biden was serving on the board of Burisma at the time. Mr. Giuliani has also pursued an unfounded theory that Ukraine was behind the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) servers. A two-year-long investigation led by former U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that Russian intelligence agents were behind the DNC hack. Mr. Taylor told members of the House of Representatives panels that U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland informed him in September that President Trump said he wanted “Zelenskyy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election” and that military aid and a White House visit were “dependent on such an announcement.” Ambassador Taylor said: “In an instant, I realized that one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine was threatened. [Giuliani’s] irregular policy channel was running contrary to the goals of long-standing U.S. policy.” (RFE/RL)


NATO leadership to visit Ukraine

NATO’s leadership will visit Ukraine for two days on October 30-31 in a show of support for the nation’s sovereignty and the ongoing reform process, said Oleksandr Vinnikov, the head of Ukraine’s NATO Liaison Office. Speaking at a NATO-related event in Kyiv on October 21, Mr. Vinnikov said the NATO Council delegation will be headed by Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and will include visits to Kyiv and Odesa. The purpose of the high-level visit is to “send a solid signal of support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, with particular attention paid to the Black Sea, and also of support to the process of reform,” UNIAN reported. During the delegation’s visit to Odesa, joint events will be held with the Ukrainian Navy and the Odesa Maritime Academy National University and will include NATO warships calling at the city’s Black Sea port. Deepening “a positive dialogue” with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, “the new government and new Parliament” is also a stated goal of the trip, according to Mr. Vinnikov.
Mr. Zelenskyy will also participate in a session of the Ukraine-NATO Commission, the decision-making body responsible for fostering relations with the alliance and directing cooperation. Separately, meetings are scheduled with members of civil society on a number of issues, including the situation with the Crimean Tatars in Russia-annexed Crimea, and gender equality in defense and security, Mr. Vinnikov said. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by Interfax, UNIAN, Hromadske and Ukrinform)


Zelenskyy meets with Japan’s Abe

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on October 21 kicked off a four-day working visit to Japan during which he was to attend Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony. Meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, Mr. Zelenskyy thanked him for his continued support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, the presidential office said. The two leaders discussed Japan’s investments in infrastructure projects in Ukraine, the statement said, noting that Japan’s financial assistance to Kyiv had reached $1.8 billion since 2014. Mr. Zelenskyy also raised the issue of introducing a visa-free regime for Ukrainians ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Japan already eased travel-visa requirements for Ukrainians in 2017.
During his visit, which is scheduled to run until October 24, the Ukrainian president is expected to hold talks with the leaders of Japan’s two legislative chambers, members of the Parliamentary Friendship Association with Ukraine, the management of Japan’s International Development Agency, and the Japan Association of New Economy, as well as business executives. Kyiv enjoys warm relations with Tokyo as Japan has not recognized Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March 2014 and has imposed certain restrictive measures on Moscow for the move, as well as Moscow’s support for militants in eastern Ukraine in a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014. “Ukraine is, of course, an independent sovereign country with a recognized border,” Japanese Ambassador to Ukraine Takashi Kurai told the Kyiv Post in July. “I do respect the people who are here who have been fighting for the freedom and independence of this country.” Japan has given Ukraine $50 million in humanitarian assistance meant for war victims, plus nearly $2 billion in grants and loans since the Maidan pro-democracy movement ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February 2014, the Kyiv Post reported. It said Japan has also donated some 1,500 cars for Ukraine’s revamped police force and provided money and advice for the country’s beleaguered health-care system. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, with reporting by the Kyiv Post)


Two killed in Kyiv grenade blast

Two men were killed and a woman was injured when a grenade exploded in a centrally located street in Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv late on October 22. Police told RFE/RL the blast went off at approximately 11 p.m. local time; it involved a Donbas war veteran and a security guard from an office building. The woman, who suffered minor injuries, was standing 30 meters away from the incident. Kyiv Deputy Police Chief Herman Prystupa said one of the men killed had been on active duty in the Donbas war zone of eastern Ukraine since 2014. According to video footage of the site, Prystupa said the two men spoke to each other before the blast, but didn’t provide additional information. “We are questioning witnesses, nobody saw a conflict… We opened an investigation according to the [Criminal Code] article on ‘premeditated murder,’ ”he said. The incident took place diagonally across the street from the five-star Premier Palace hotel. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)


Sushchenko to sue Russia

Ukrinform journalist Roman Sushchenko, a former political prisoner of the Kremlin, has said he will sue the Russian Federation in the European Court of Human Rights. He stated this at a meeting at the Journalism Institute of Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv on October 16, while answering questions from students. “My lawyer and I talked about it. …We are going to file a lawsuit with the European Court of Human Rights,” Mr. Sushchenko said. Earlier, he and his former lawyer Mark Feygin said that they would take care of the issues of political prisoners on the international stage. “We want to put forward an initiative for the international community so as to create a mechanism, first of all, a diplomatic one, and to set some rules (especially in the humane aspect) to prevent the emergence of other political prisoners,” Mr. Sushchenko said. Ukrinform’s foreign correspondent in France, Mr. Sushchenko, was illegally imprisoned in Russia on trumped-up charges for three years. He was detained on September 30, 2016, in Moscow, where he arrived on a private trip. On October 7, 2016, he was charged with espionage. On June 4, 2018, the Moscow City Court sentenced him to 12 years in prison in a high-security penal colony; on September 12 of that year, the Supreme Court of Russia upheld the ruling. On September 7, Ukraine and Russia exchanged detainees. Thirty-five Ukrainians, including Mr. Sushchenko, 10 other political prisoners and 24 sailors captured in the Kerch Strait in November 2018, returned home. (Ukrinform)


Deputy prosecutor on recovery of foreign assets

Ukraine’s first deputy prosecutor-general, Vitaliy Kasko, has said that in the three and a half years since he left his post, the authorities haven’t provided convincing evidence to recover frozen assets abroad that allegedly belong to former President Viktor Yanukovych and his inner circle. Speaking to the state-run Ukrinform agency on October 16, Mr. Kasko, who was reappointed to his position in September, said that in order to recover any stolen assets from abroad, cases must be successfully investigated and prosecuted in Ukraine before claims can be made in foreign jurisdictions. Recalling his first tenure as deputy prosecutor general in 2014-2016, Mr. Kasko said that “we need proof in criminal cases in Ukraine to demand or ask for the return of anything from abroad.” In the years since then, he said, “not one kopek was retrieved related to Yanukovych or to any corruption case whatsoever.” The reason, according to Mr. Kasko, is that not one former top official suspected of corruption was convicted in Ukraine and their frozen foreign assets tied to a specific crime. “But one has to have patience,” he said. “There are several criminal investigations under way that show promise. I won’t provide timeframes or start painting colorful digits in the billions, like some people did. Let’s wait for the rulings.” Former Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko in 2017 said that Mr. Yanukovych and his cohorts had allegedly absconded with approximately $40 billion. Prosecutors are investigating Mr. Yanukovych as the alleged head of an organized crime group that includes oligarch Serhiy Kurchenko, former Revenues and Duties Minister Oleksandr Klymenko, former First Deputy Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov and other former high-ranking officials. Mr. Kasko resigned in 2016 over disgust with alleged graft at the Prosecutor General’s Office, then headed by Viktor Shokin. Mr. Kasko said his decision was based on “the fact that the top management has turned into a body dominated by corruption and people covering each other’s backs; and any attempts to change this state of affairs are conspicuously persecuted.” On September 5, Prosecutor-General Ruslan Ryaboshapka appointed Mr. Kasko as one of his deputies. (RFE/RL, with reporting by Ukrinform, UNIAN, Novoye Vremya, Ukrayinska Pravda and Liga.net)