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.
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 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 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 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.
Ladin said that a televised interview broadcast on March 18, in which 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 Ladin, 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 Yesypenko made his confession, saying it appeared "to be forced and made without access to legal counsel."
"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," he said.
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 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.