Ukrainian Journalist in Crimea Framed with a Grenade Plant, Arrested, Tortured and Sentenced to 6 Years in Prison. The Case of Vladislav Esipenko
A journalist was sentenced to 6 years in prison and fined for “collecting information for the benefit of the Ukrainian intelligence services”, and during his arrest an explosive device was allegedly found in his car. The journalist himself does not admit guilt and asserts that law enforcement officers slipped a grenade into his car, and then tortured him with electricity and beat him. Here’s his story.
Who is Vladislav Esipenko?
Vladislav Esipenko was born on March 13, 1969, in Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine. He is married and has a young child. Before his detention, he worked as a freelance journalist for Radio Svoboda (the “Crimea.Realities” project). While he is a citizen of Ukraine, he also has a Russian passport as result of forced passportization of residents of annexed Crimea where Esipenko and his family lived from 2013 to 2015.
According to the prosecution, Esipenko, who was planning a business trip to Crimea, agreed with an unknown person to purchase a hand grenade RGD-5. The grenade was placed in a hideout in the village of Pravda of Pervomaisky district of Crimea. On February 26, Esipenko supposedly took a grenade from the stash, and put it in his car. In Simferopol, he replaced the ring of the fuse and tied a nylon thread to it. The investigation claims that the explosive device was acquired by the journalist to ensure his personal safety while collecting information for “Crimea.Realities” media outlet.
On March 10, 2021, FSB officers stopped Esipenko’s car in Crimea and during search with a service dog “found” a grenade in his car. According to the FSB, Esipenko was questioned and then released under the obligation to come to the UFSB in the morning, which he did. Esipenko later said that on the night of 10-11 March he was forcefully held in a basement in Bakhchisarai and tortured.
The Arrest and the Criminal Case
On March 11, 2021, a criminal case was opened regarding the discovery of an explosive device. At the same time, Esipenko was officially detained. On that day, an interrigation was conducted in which the journalist supposedly told FSB officers about the location of the hideout. Witnesses from the FSB told the court that they brought the suspect to Pravda village from Simferopol; he himself says that he was brought directly from the basement in Bakhchisarai, and before the investigative action, they coached him on what place he should point to.
On March 12, 2021, the Kyiv District Court of Simferopol chaired by V.V. Krapko took Esipenko into custody.
On March 16, 2021, the decision to bring him as a defendant was made by the senior investigator of the investigative department of the FSS of Russia in the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, Major of Justice V.O. Vlasov.
Initially, Esipenko pleaded guilty. The first testimony states that the journalist collected information in Crimea not only for his editorial office, but also for Viktor Kravchuk, “who introduced himself as an employee of the Ukrainian intelligence services (SBU).” It was Kravchuk, according to the testimony, who suggested that he acquires a grenade.
Esipenko was represented by an appointed lawyer, Violetta Sineglazova, who recommended that he plead guilty and, according to Esipenko, did not respond to claims of torture. As the Ukrainian newspaper “Grati” found out, on March 11, she was not a duty lawyer of the Crimean Bar Association and should not have been involved in the case.
On March 15 and 17, independent lawyers Emil Kurbedinov and Alexei Ladin were not allowed to meet with Esipenko. The staff of the pre-trial detention facility claimed that the journalist declined their services in writing.
On March 19, the TV channel “Krym.24” in its news program published an interview with the arrested journalist, entitled “Revelations of a spy: an exclusive interview of the TV channel “Krym 24” with the detained Ukrainian saboteur.” In the interview, Esipenko answers the interviewer’s questions in a monotonous voice, answering affirmatively to every question. According to his answers, he took the grenade from the stash, which was planted by the SBU. In addition, Esipenko said that as a freelancer for Radio Svoboda in Ukraine, he cooperated with the SBU, communicating with a certain Viktor Kravchuk there since 2017. His cooperation with the SBU included making copies to the SBU “via Google disk” of all the materials he filmed for Radio Svoboda. However, Yesipenko was never officially charged with espionage or sabotage. Esipenko was able to meet lawyer Mr. Ladin for the first time on April 6, 2021 in court as he appealed his arrest. At that time, he submitted a statement in which he said that FSB officers had planted a grenade in his car and then tortured and beaten him.
On March 23, outlet “Grati” published a report, citing a source in the pre-detention center of Simferopol, saying that Esipenko was tortured with electric shocks with connecting wires to his head. According to Esipenko, on April 12 and 13, an FSB officer approached him and threatened him with torture and death if he refused to confess. Esipenko claims that the officer was detective Denis Korovin, who was assigned to the criminal case. Subsequently, the Military Investigative Committee refused to initiate a criminal case in connection with Yesipenko’s statement about torture.
In July 2021, Judge Dilyaver Berberov of the Simferopol District Court commenced hearings on the case. On February 15, 2022, the representative of the state prosecution Elena Podolnaya asked to sentence Esipenko to 11 years in prison with a fine of 200 thousand rubles.
On February 16, the Simferopol district court sentenced the journalist to six years in a general regime penal colony and a fine of 110 thousand rubles. Judge Dilyaver Berberov found Esipenko guilty of possession (Article 222 of the Criminal Code) and manufacture of explosives (Part 1 Article 223.1 of the Criminal Code).
Why Does the Memorial Center Recognize Vladislav Esipenko as a Political Prisoner?
After studying the documents of the case, the Human Rights Center “Memorial” came to the conclusion that Vladislav Esipenko is a victim of political persecution, which is due to his professional activities.
The Center experts assert that possession of a grenade as a means of self-defense makes practically no sense: it can explode along with those from whom you are defending yourself. The likelihood that a journalist, who is aware of the specifics of repressions in annexed Crimea and drives a car with Ukrainian license plates, would risk carrying a prohibited item that cannot be used in almost any way, is extremely low.
Secondly, the testimonies of key witnesses during the trial contradict each other, and the grenade simply does not physically fit into the glove compartment of the car in which, according to the accusation, it was found. The trial gave serious grounds to believe that the testimony of the FSB operatives who searched Esipenko’s car and the witnesses who were present were false. Operative Grishchenko claimed that he himself found the grenade during the inspection of the car by opening the glove compartment, while dog handler Brodsky said that the smell of explosives was detected by the dog, after which he called the explosives expert.
Some witnesses claimed that the grenade was in the glove compartment, while others said that it was in a compartment under the steering wheel. The defense performed a forensic experiment, during which they showed that the grenade did not fit into the glove compartment of the model car Esipenko drove.
When the officers stopped Esipenko’s car, Elizaveta Pavlenko, in whose apartment Esipenko and his wife were staying in Crimea, was riding in the car with him. According to Pavlenko, FSB officers immediately put her in another car and took her home for a search, even before the grenade was discovered. This indirectly indicates that the operation to detain Esipenko was orchestrated. Had the operatives not known in advance what they would “find” in the car and how it would be presented in the case, they would have waited for the results of the car inspection and would have checked Pavlenko’s involvement in the storage, transportation and refinement of the grenade.
Thirdly, the officials’ claim that after the inspection of his car on March 10, 2022, Yesipenko was released on a pledge to appear, which he fulfilled, and that he was not detained until March 11, is considered by “Memorial” a cynical lie intended to cover up the evidence of torture: Yesipenko says he was tortured on the night of March 10-11. In Memorial’s view, the investigators barred the arrested journalist from meeting with independent lawyers for almost a month for the same purpose.
The political motivation of the persecution of Vladislav Esipenko is obvious. He is a journalist working for an independent media outlet that does not recognize the legitimacy of the annexation of Crimea. His arrest fits into the campaign against non-state journalism. Esipenko’s case is used to intimidate all those who disagree with the occupation and annexation of Crimea and discourage Ukrainian journalists from working on the peninsula.
The report on the “Krym.24” TV channel clearly shows the use of the case against Esipenko by propaganda. The viewers are told that the journalist is not really a professional reporter, but an accomplice of the Ukrainian intelligence services. Apparently, the official charge of carrying a grenade seemed petty to the propagandists, so initially Esipenko was forced to talk about himself as a spy. Later, the authorities simply “forgot” about “collecting information for the SBU,” because they had already achieved the desired effect by creating the image of a “spy and saboteur” in the pro-government media.
Based on the above, Memorial considers Vladislav Esipenko to be a political prisoner and calls for his release and for a review of his sentence with respect for the right to a fair trial.