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Interview: Ukrainian Journalist Says Arrest In Russia Was 'Purely Political Decision'

Ukrainian TV journalist Yevhen Aharkov
Ukrainian TV journalist Yevhen Aharkov

Last month Yevhen Aharkov, a correspondent for the Ukrainian TV Channel "1+1," flew to Voronezh, Russia, to cover the case of Nadya Savchenko -- a Ukrainian Air Force pilot who was kidnapped by separatist rebels in June and transferred to a Russian detention center. She is now facing charges over the deaths of two Russian journalists killed in a mortar attack in eastern Ukraine.

Aharkov never saw Savchenko. He was detained and found guilty of "working illegally as a journalist" on July 18, and ordered to pay a fine of 2,000 rubles (about $55). He spent 10 days in detention before being deported back to Kyiv. He recently spoke with RFE/RL's Dmitry Volchek about what happened.

RFE/RL: Is it true that you were followed from the border, and they already knew who you were and where you were going?

Yevhen Aharkov: The adventure began even at the airport, when we were just about to take off, we were sitting in the plane. We were flying with Vera Savchenko, the sister of Nadya. As we soon found out, they were already waiting for her at the airport. Therefore, they categorically banned her from flying.

When we were in Voronezh, we checked into the hotel with the glitzy name "Italia" (reminds me not at all of Italy). The woman at reception asked us, "And is Ms. Savchenko still coming with you?" So they were already waiting for us. On the second day, cars followed behind us, they were mostly Ladas and Fords, which were not hidden, and drove behind our taxis or behind us in the consul's car.

We understood that my colleague's telephone was tapped. The surveillance began on the second day and continued in the following days. While the consul was there, as he had a car that was untouchable, we were safe. Once the consul left Friday morning [July 18] from Voronezh, then everything happened.

RFE/RL: You wanted to cover the trial of Nadya Savchenko?

Aharkov: We were not in the court. We came, first of all, to support Nadya, to meet with the consul, meet with the lawyer, pass along a message from [Nadya's] mother to the lawyer. The mother was very distressed and tearfully asked to deliver a letter.

RFE/RL: You were captured right in the hotel?

Aharkov: It happened on Friday morning. We were going to give Nadya a small package, because the lawyers asked that we give her milk, cigarettes, and oatmeal cookies. They said that Nadya laughed at this request, but nevertheless we wanted to fulfill it. We went to breakfast and then got ready to go to Nadya. My girlfriend left a bit earlier, and I went down after 10 minutes.

Downstairs there were three men, who once they saw me, came up to me and asked me to show a card from the Federal Migration Service [FMS] and said that they needed to ask me a few questions. I asked, what was the reason, and they said that it was a normal procedure for foreign citizens, that they needed to check documents.

They lied to me when they said that I needed to go with them to the office to check the authenticity of the migration card. I suspect that this was done so that I would go without resisting them. They put me in a car and we went to the office of the FMS on Nevsky Street.

RFE/RL: They accused you of not having accreditation. Why did you not have it?

Aharkov: Yes, indeed, they showed me a clip of the program TSN on "1+1", which had aired on Tuesday [July 15], and they said, "You were working without accreditation." In principle, I agree with that, no question. Our officially accredited journalist for "1+1" is Margarita Sytnik, who works in Moscow, and on that day she was getting ready to drive to Voronezh.

But [Russian dissident] Valeriya Novodvorskaya died and the tragedy on the Moscow Metro happened [an explosion that killed 21 people]. It became clear that Rita would have to stay in Moscow and cover the tragedy and the funeral of Novodvorskaya. So in a matter of minutes it was decided to go and support Nadya, at least she would be informed of what is happening here.

RFE/RL: The most unexpected thing in your story was not the capture but the sentence -- 10 days in prison. Do you think this was spontaneously decided on the initiative of local authorities or was the sentence decided in Moscow?

Aharkov: I will not guess from where it was imposed. But all of us understand well that, if we had a tail behind us, this was not the FMS spying. One of the FMS workers who came to me in isolation hinted: you understand that this was not done without special services. As the lawyer Mark Feigin [Savchenko's attorney] said, it was a purely political decision to demonstrate to Ukrainian journalists what will become of them if they come to cover the Savchenko trial.

RFE/RL: Where were you held and under what conditions?

Aharkov: In an isolation ward for the temporary detention of foreign citizens -- in the settlement of Yelizavetovka, Pavlovsky Region, 160 kilometers from Voronezh. It is a former TB treatment center. Of course they tried to assure me that they disinfected and remodeled after that. But you understand, all the same, there is anxiety over the health.

The room was about 20 square meters, a brown-yellow color, six beds, two bunk beds, a table, two stools, one nightstand in all. A steel door, a peephole like in pretrial detention, bars on the windows. In order to go to the bathroom to wash, you need to knock on the door, an administrator comes, takes you there and back.

The head of the institution is also a nice man; we immediately found a common language. They fed us well too. Borscht, soups, sometimes with meat, very tasty, pasta with cutlets, sometimes plov.

RFE/RL: You said the room had six beds. So there were five prisoners with you?

Aharkov: No, I was kept alone. The reason, as I realized at the end, was a principled position. A guy asked to be moved with me, but he didn't move to my room, but was allowed to move into another.

RFE/RL: But did you have the ability to communicate with other prisoners?

Aharkov: Yes, sometimes on walks. In the room for walks there might be a few people there. I met citizens of Ukraine, Nigeria, Georgia, and other states.

RFE/RL: And were you allowed to see the consul?

Aharkov: The first time they didn't allow the consul to see me: it was the first Saturday [July 19] when they brought me there. And in the end, when the court ruling entered into force, the consul was given permission and came to me. We talked for long enough. He also dealt with some Ukrainian citizens who were there; some had been detained for about five months, and some even longer.

RFE/RL: They released and deported you immediately?

Aharkov: The procedure was sped up as much as possible. The consul wrote notes to the Foreign Ministry of Russia, Mark Feigin directed me towards applications that I needed to fill out to speed up the procedure. And if we hadn't done this, I would have spent another week there, because the court would have waited for correspondence that could have come from the mailboxes, they wait for about seven days to begin to prepare the documents for deportation.

RFE/RL: Yevhen, what is your feeling on this story, what conclusions have you drawn?

Aharkov: First, do not go without accreditation. Second, do not stay in hotels that can leak information about you. Concerning emotions, I have mixed feelings. For me, it was a new experience. I'm not depressed now, but I am feeling a bit low. I even lost four kilograms, despite the fact that I was fed well. Some level of stress affected me a little bit.

Interview by Dmitry Volchek from RFE/RL's Russian Service. Translated by Luke Johnson in Washington and edited for clarity