April 1, 2021



RSF concerned over journalist’s “confession”
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says it fears that a detained Crimean journalist’s televised “confession” to spying on behalf of Ukraine was obtained under torture and has called for his immediate release and the withdrawal of the charges against him. In a statement on March 26, Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk, expressed concern about “the psychological and physical pressure” Vladislav Yesypenko has been subjected to. Ms. Cavelier also condemned the ban on access to his lawyer. Mr. Yesypenko, a freelance contributor to Crimea.Realities, a regional news outlet of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, was “visibly pale and had difficulty talking when he made his confession – one almost certainly obtained under duress – in an interview for local Russian TV channel Krym24 that seemed more like a police interrogation,” the Paris-based media freedom watchdog said. The interview was broadcast on March 18, eight days after Mr. Yesypenko, who has Ukrainian and Russian dual nationality, was arrested in Ukraine’s Russia-annexed Crimea region. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said Mr. Yesypenko was suspected of collecting information for Ukrainian intelligence and claimed that an object “looking like an explosive device” was found in his automobile during his apprehension. The journalist was charged with “making firearms,” which is punishable by up to six years in prison. RFE/RL President Jamie Fly has called for Mr. Yesypenko’s immediate release and also has questioned the circumstances under which Mr. Yesypenko made his confession. “We question the circumstances surrounding this purported confession, which appears to be forced and made without access to legal counsel,” Mr. Fly said in a statement. “The Russian authorities have similarly smeared RFE/RL Ukrainian Service contributors with false charges in the past. Vladislav is a freelance contributor with RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, not a spy, and he should be released,” Mr. Fly added. Ukraine’s Foreign Intelligence Service described the arrest as “a convenient attempt to distract the attention of the population away from the numerous internal problems of the peninsula” ahead of the seventh anniversary of its forcible annexation, which was marked on March 18. The U.S. State Department called Mr. Yesypenko’s arrest “another attempt to repress those who speak the truth about Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.” Graty, a Ukrainian media outlet specializing in police and judicial abuses, quoted a source at Mr. Yesypenko’s place of detention as saying he had been tortured, while the lawyer chosen by the journalist’s family has not been allowed to see him, according to the Crimean Human Rights Group (CHRG). This suggests that the authorities are trying to cover up evidence that Mr. Yesypenko has been “subjected to illegal methods of investigation, including physical and psychological violence,” the CHRG said. Mr. Yesypenko was detained along with a resident of the Crimean city of Alushta, Yelizaveta Pavlenko, after the two took part in an event marking the 207th anniversary of the birth of Ukrainian poet and thinker Taras Shevchenko the day before in Crimea. Ms. Pavlenko was later released. Russia forcibly annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, sending in troops and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by at least 100 countries after Moscow-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted amid a wave of public protests. Rights groups say that since then, Russia has moved aggressively to prosecute Ukrainian activists and anyone who questions the annexation. Moscow also backs separatists in a war against Ukrainian government forces that has killed more than 13,000 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014. (RFE/RL)

Four soldiers killed by shelling
The Ukrainian military says four of its soldiers have been killed in shelling in the country’s east, where fighting between government forces and Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 13,000 people since April 2014. “Today, March 26, the armed forces of the Russian Federation once again violated the cease-fire” agreed to in July 2020 and targeted the positions of Ukrainian forces with “82-mm mortars, automatic grenade launchers, and large-caliber machine guns prohibited by the Minsk agreements” aimed at putting an end to the conflict, the military said in a statement. It said two soldiers were also injured in the attack, which occurred near the settlement of Shumy, north of the separatist stronghold of Donetsk. The skirmish brings the total number of Ukrainian servicemen reported killed since the beginning of the year to 16, according to AFP. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged the leaders of the so-called Normandy Format, a diplomatic process involving Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France aimed at resolving the conflict, to “do their utmost to preserve a full and comprehensive” cease-fire. In a joint statement on March 18, the G-7 group of nations noted that the cease-fire implemented last year has “significantly reduced violence” in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk while also deploring “recent military escalations by Russian-backed armed formations at the line of contact.” The foreign affairs ministers of Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, as well as the EU foreign policy chief, called on Moscow to implement its commitments to the Minsk agreements, and “stop fueling the conflict” by providing “financial and military support to the separatists.” Moscow claims it only provides political and humanitarian support to the separatists holding parts of Donetsk and Luhansk, and says Russians fighting there are volunteers. (RFE/RL, with reporting by AFP)

Russia building up military in eastern Ukraine
Russia is building up armed forces near Ukraine’s borders in a threat to the country’s security, Ruslan Khomchak, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, said on March 30, accusing Moscow of pursuing an “aggressive policy” towards Kyiv. In remarks to parliament, Gen. Khomchak also accused pro-Moscow separatists of systematically violating a ceasefire in the conflict in eastern Ukraine agreed in July 2020. Ukraine and Russia have traded blame for a spike in violence in the conflict, which Kyiv says has killed 14,000 people since 2014. Government forces and pro-Russian separatists accuse each other of breaching the ceasefire, and lawmakers say 26 Ukrainian servicemen have been killed so far this year, including four killed by snipers last week. “The Russian Federation continues its aggressive policy towards Ukraine,” Gen. Khomchak told parliament. Gen. Khomchak said Russian troops from different regions had been assembling near the borders of Ukraine under the guise of maintaining combat readiness and preparing for exercises, “carrying out a gradual build-up of troops near the state border of Ukraine.” He added that, “An additional concentration of up to 25 tactical groups is expected, which, together with the already deployed forces near the state border of Ukraine, poses a threat to the military security of the state.” Moscow holds 32,700 troops in Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014, while its officers command 28,000 separatist servicemen stationed in temporarily occupied territories in eastern Ukraine, Gen. Khomchak said. Ukraine, Western countries and NATO accuse Russia of sending troops and heavy weapons to prop up separatists. Moscow says it only provides political and humanitarian support to the rebels and says Russians fighting in Ukraine are volunteers. (Reuters)

Kremlin fears Ukraine could restart conflict
The Kremlin said on March 31 it was concerned by mounting tensions in war-torn eastern Ukraine and that it feared Kyiv’s government forces could do something to restart a conflict with pro-Russian separatists. The comments came a day after the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces accused Russia of a military buildup near their shared border and said that the pro-Moscow separatists were systematically violating a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. Kyiv and Moscow have blamed each other for a recent spate of violence in the region. Around 14,000 people have been killed in the conflict since it first erupted in 2014, Ukraine says. “We express concern over the growing tension and express concern that one way or another the Ukrainian side could take provocative actions that would lead to war. We really don’t want to see that,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “I mean a civil war, which there already was there,” Mr. Peskov said, when asked to clarify his statement on a conference call with reporters. Russian President Vladimir Putin late on March 30 accused Ukraine of provoking armed confrontation with the separatists and of failing to honor agreements over the region. Speaking during a video conference with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr. Putin also urged Kyiv to enter into direct dialogue with local separatist forces, the Kremlin said late on March 30. “The Russian side expressed serious concern over the escalation of armed confrontation that is being provoked by Ukraine along the line of contact and its effective refusal to implement the agreements of July 2020 … to strengthen the ceasefire regime,” the Kremlin said. Germany, Russia and France are part of the so-called “Normandy format” that also includes Ukraine and that was set up in 2014 to try to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine. (Reuters)

Kyiv to lock down amid record COVID-19 deaths
Ukraine’s capital Kyiv will impose a strict lockdown from April 5 amid a gloomy prediction for a further surge in infections and a record daily number of coronavirus-related deaths, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on March 31. Ukraine’s Health Minister Maksym Stepanov said there were 407 coronavirus-related deaths recorded in the country over a 24-hour period on March 31, and warned infections were likely to rise further over the next one to two weeks. The country began rolling out vaccinations against the COVID-19 pandemic last month and 231,564 people had received the first shot by March 31, yet Mr. Stepanov described the situation as “tense enough.” Kyiv, with the highest infection rate in the ex-Soviet republic of 41 million people, will restrict public transport, close all schools and kindergartens for the period from April 5 to April 16, Mr. Klitschko said. “We have no other option. Otherwise, there will be hundreds of deaths every day,” he said on Telegram messenger. Earlier on March 31 he said 1,100 new coronavirus cases were registered in the city over the past day with 35 deaths. Kyiv hospitals dedicated to COVID-19 treatment were now 80 percent full, Mr. Klitschko said. A major spike in infections last week to a 24-hour record of 18,132 prompted almost half the country’s regions to impose a tight lockdown. Mr. Stepanov said on Facebook that 11,226 new infections were reported over a 24-hour period on March 31, pushing the total to 1,674,168 since the pandemic began a little over a year ago. The previous daily high of 362 deaths was on March 25. A total of 32,825 Ukrainians have died from COVID-19. Ukraine received 500,000 doses of the Indian-made AstraZeneca vaccine CoviShield in February and the first 215,000 of China’s Sinovac COVID-19 shot. Thirty-seven million vaccine doses are expected to arrive in Ukraine in 2021 and the health ministry hopes most of the adult population will be inoculated this year, Mr. Stepanov told a televised government meeting. (Reuters)

Ukraine on list of highest ECHR cases
The Council of Europe says states across the continent last year continued to make “progress” on implementing judgments from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) despite the coronavirus pandemic. But it stressed that further efforts are needed to tackle issues such as ill-treatment or deaths caused by security forces and poor conditions of detention, as well as a “growing number of cases concerning abusive limitations on rights and freedoms.” The assessment was part of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers’ annual report for 2020 on the execution of ECHR judgments. States with the highest total number of new cases last year were Russia (218), Turkey (103) and Ukraine (84), followed by Romania (78) and Hungary (61). These countries also had the highest number of pending cases at the end of 2020: Russia (1,789), Turkey (624), Ukraine (567), Romania (347) and Hungary (276). The states over which the ECHR awarded the most “just satisfaction” to applicants were Romania ($43.9 million), Russia ($13.4 million), Italy ($6 million), Montenegro ($5.4 million) and Moldova ($4.9 million). Council of Europe Secretary-General Marija Pejcinovic Buric said in a statement that the report shows that member states take their obligations to implement judgments from the Strasbourg-based court “very seriously, even in difficult circumstances.” However, Ms. Buric noted that “many important judgments have been outstanding for several years and a small number of high-profile cases are not being resolved quickly enough.” She added that, “Our member states have a duty to implement ECHR judgments promptly and fully. This is not a kind request – it is a binding requirement.” According to the report, 983 cases were closed by the Committee of Ministers in 2020, which marked the 70th anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights, as a result of steps taken by the relevant member states. At the end of the year, 5,233 cases had yet to be fully implemented by the member states involved – among the lowest counts since 2006. The report states that 581 payments of “just satisfaction” to applicants, awarded by the ECHR, were made on time in 2020, while the Committee of Ministers was still awaiting confirmation of payment in 1,574 cases at the end of December. (RFE/RL)