April 15, 2021



Kyiv extends COVID lockdown
The Ukrainian capital Kyiv will remain on lockdown until April 30 as the daily number of new coronavirus cases and coronavirus-related deaths continues to climb. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko announced the decision in a televised briefing on April 14, saying there was “no other choice, otherwise the medical system would not be able to cope with a further rise in the number of patients, otherwise there will be even more deaths.” Last month, city authorities closed schools and kindergartens, theaters, and shopping centers, while cafes and restaurants were only allowed to provide takeaway food. Kyiv public transport is now operating on special passenger passes for those working for critical infrastructure enterprises. Mr. Klitschko recommended that companies keep employees working remotely, or have them take vacation. “No time to be frivolous. Today, our main task is to preserve the health and life of Kyiv residents, to help our doctors cope with this wave,” he said. The mayor said the capital reported 1,457 new coronavirus cases on April 13 and some 47 related deaths. Ukraine has registered a total of nearly 1.9 million coronavirus infections and over 38,220-related deaths since the start of the pandemic. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)

Erdogan wants end of ‘worrying’ developments
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for an end to what he described as “worrying” developments in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region after meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on April 10. The meeting, which lasted more than three hours in Istanbul, was part of a previously scheduled visit but coincided with increased tensions between Kyiv and Moscow over the long-running conflict in eastern Ukraine. Mr. Erdogan expressed his concern about the current fraught situation at a news conference alongside Mr. Zelenskyy, adding that he hoped the conflict would be resolved peacefully through dialogue and in line with Ukraine’s territorial integrity. “We believe that the current crisis can be solved with peaceful and diplomatic means on the basis of the integrity of Ukraine and international law,” Mr. Erdogan said. Turkey and Ukraine, both of which border on the Black Sea, maintain close relations, and Turkey has previously condemned the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. “As Turkey, we have strongly defended the integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. We have once more confirmed our decision not to recognize the occupation of Crimea,” Mr. Erdogan said at the press conference. During their meeting the presidents also discussed expanding defense cooperation between their countries. Mr. Zelenskyy said the stepped-up cooperation would apply especially to weaponry and the construction of fighter jets. Mr. Zelenskyy said Kyiv and Ankara share the same view on threats in the Black Sea region and the response to those threats. Mr. Zelenskyy, who visited troops in the Donbas region two days ago, said he had briefed Mr. Erdogan on the situation in detail. Major movements of Russian armed forces toward or near Ukraine’s borders and into Ukraine’s Russia-occupied Crimean Peninsula have been captured in photographs, video and other data, fueling concerns that Moscow may be preparing to send forces into eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin has rejected Western calls to pull back its troops, denying they are a threat while adding that military movements within Russia are an internal sovereign issue. Washington has called Moscow’s military buildup “destabilizing,” and the White House has expressed concern about the recent troop movements. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken consulted the German and French foreign affairs ministers on April 9 about the need for Russia to cease its military buildup in the occupied Crimean Peninsula and near Ukraine’s eastern borders. Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, sending in troops and staging a referendum denounced as illegitimate by at least 100 countries. Since then, overwhelming evidence suggests Russia has continued to lend diplomatic and military aid to armed separatists fighting in the Donbas region. The conflict has killed more than 13,000 people and displaced more than 1 million since April 2014. (RFE/RL, with reporting by Reuters and AP)

U.S. denounces crackdown on journalists
The U.S. State Department has called for the release of an RFE/RL freelance correspondent arrested in Ukraine’s Russia-annexed Crimea region and joined human rights groups in expressing concern over his treatment and a televised “confession” he gave. “Troubled by reports that Russian occupation authorities in Crimea tortured @RFERL freelance journalist [Vladyslav] Yesypenko to coerce his confession. We call for his release, and for Russia to cease its reprisals against independent voices in Crimea,” spokesman Ned Price tweeted on April 13. Mr. Yesypenko’s lawyer on April 6 said his client testified during a closed-door court hearing that he was tortured with electric shocks, beaten, and threatened with death unless he “confessed” to spying on behalf of Ukraine. Lawyer Aleksei Ladin said after the hearing that the torture lasted two days after Mr. Yesypenko’s arrest on March 10 on what the defense calls false charges against the journalist, who has Ukrainian and Russian dual nationality. RFE/RL President Jamie Fly at the time said that the broadcaster is “outraged” to learn what Mr. Yesypenko said during his testimony, saying the journalist “must be set free now, and allowed to rejoin his family in Ukraine immediately.” Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) has said Mr. Yesypenko, a freelance contributor to Crimea.Realities, a regional news outlet of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, 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. Mr. Ladin said that a televised interview broadcast on March 18, in which Mr. Yesypenko “confessed” to spying for Ukraine, was staged. The lawyer quoted his client as saying he was given a written text to read aloud and then answered questions that people in charge of his detainment asked. According to Mr. Ladin, Mr. Yesypenko also said at the trial that he has serious problems with his kidneys and needs medicine for the ailment. RFE/RL President Fly has questioned the circumstances under which Mr. Yesypenko made his confession, saying it appeared “to be forced and made without access to legal counsel.” The RFE/RL president added that, “The Russian authorities have similarly smeared RFE/RL Ukrainian Service contributors with false charges in the past. Vladyslav is a freelance contributor with RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, not a spy, and he should be released.” Ukraine’s Foreign Intelligence Service has described the arrest as “a convenient attempt to distract the attention of the population away from the numerous internal problems of the peninsula” around the seventh anniversary of its forcible annexation, which was marked on March 18. The U.S. State Department has called Mr. Yesypenko’s arrest “another attempt to repress those who speak the truth about Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.” Russia 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)

Kyiv urged to bring home Ukrainians
Human Rights Watch (HRW) is urging Kyiv to repatriate dozens of Ukrainian women and children it says are being held in “horrific” conditions in Syrian camps. An estimated 40 Ukrainian women and children are “unlawfully” detained in two camps in northeastern Syria, the New York-based human rights watchdog said in a statement on April 13. The majority of them are children, some as young as 2 years old, it added. The group is among nearly 43,000 foreigners linked to the Islamic State (IS) extremist group who are being held by regional authorities. HRW said it had sent letters to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba requesting the government take prompt action to assist and repatriate the Ukrainian women and children. “Ukrainian women and children are being held in horrific and appalling conditions while their government chooses to look the other way,” said Yulia Gorbunova, senior Ukraine researcher at HRW. Kyiv “should comply with the regional authorities’ repeated calls for countries to bring home their nationals, prioritizing the most vulnerable,” Ms. Gorbunova added. Ukraine’s government, as well as administrations in several other countries with similar situations, have been reluctant to repatriate such cases, contending that it poses too high a security risk. None of the 40 Ukrainian women and children detained at the Al-Hol and Roj camps have been brought before a court or investigated or prosecuted for any crime, and their “arbitrary” detention by the armed forces of the Kurdish-led autonomous administration of northeastern Syria violates international law, according to HRW. The group said that the conditions in the camps were “often inhumane and life-threatening, with growing insecurity and shortages of vital aid.” The coronavirus pandemic “presents another threat to the lives of these detainees,” with the United Nations reporting at least 8,537 coronavirus cases in northeastern Syria as of February. The watchdog quoted Children in Syria and Iraq, a group of independent Ukrainian investigative journalists and activists that monitors the issue, as saying that the detainees “live in constant fear and are terrified for their health and safety.” Three of the detained women and one child were said to have disabilities, while one woman has an acute kidney disease, one child and one woman have shrapnel injuries, and one child has a severe gum infection. HRW called on the Ukrainian government, which has already repatriated two women and seven children from northeastern Syria, to bring home its remaining nationals and their children. The government should also increase consular assistance to its citizens and humanitarian aid to the camps and prisons in northeastern Syria “to complement – not replace – repatriations.” (RFE/RL)

WWF highlights illegal fishing
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has published a survey that it says shows that illegal fishing and trade in wild sturgeon is happening in the lower Danube region on a “rather serious scale.” Poaching and the illegal trade of meat and caviar are often cited as major threats to many sturgeon populations worldwide, but the conservation group said that its survey, made public on April 12, provides “first-time evidence of the actual scale” of the threats in the lower Danube, specifically in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine. The WWF said that nearly one-third of the samples of sturgeon products bought through the survey were illegal, while 214 cases of poaching-related incidents were recorded by authorities. “This is the first assessment of the volume of sturgeon poaching and trade along the lower Danube and Black Sea – and even if we have to assume that we found just the tip of the iceberg, it shows how serious the impact on the last wild sturgeons still is and how crucial our fight is to save them,” WWF project manager Jutta Jahrl said in a statement. The methodology of the survey, titled “Evidence For Trafficking Of Critically Endangered Sturgeons In The Lower Danube Region,” combined official data on poaching activities and the results of a “large-scale” market survey and forensic analysis of meat and caviar samples in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and Ukraine between October 2016 and July 2020, according to the WWF. It said a total of 145 samples were collected at different locations from sturgeon populations that share the same migratory routes along the entire trade chain on the Lower Danube and in the northwestern Black Sea region. Testing points included retailers such as shops, restaurants, local markets, and fishermen, and all samples underwent DNA and isotope analysis that the environmental nongovernmental organization said proved that wild sturgeon products were being sold in Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine. All fishing and trade of wild Danube sturgeon species was prohibited in Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine during the time period under study, and only the catch of sterlet measuring above 40 centimeters was allowed in Serbia until the end of 2018. WWF said a total of 214 cases of illegal poaching-related incidents were recorded in the three other countries – 82 cases in Romania, 82 in Bulgaria, and 50 in Ukraine – between January 2016 and December 2020. (RFE/RL)