On October 22, the Appeals Chamber of the Supreme Court of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) sentenced Ukrainian journalist Stanislav Aseyev to 15 years in prison on a number of charges, including espionage, incitement to espionage, organization of an extremist community and public calls for actions aimed at violating [the DNR’s] territorial integrity.
Aseyev, who was also ordered not to engage in journalistic activities for two and a half years, will reportedly serve out his sentence in a maximum-security colony.
Russian-backed separatists allegedly abducted Aseyev in June 2017 while he was reporting from his hometown of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian journalist wrote for various publications, including Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), a media company that is U.S. government-funded but editorially independent. Some of his reports have been made available in English.
RFE/RL President Jamie Fly called Aseyev’s conviction “reprehensible”.
“Stas is a journalist, and was only trying to raise awareness about the situation in eastern Ukraine,” Fly said in a statement. “The ruling is an attempt by Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk to silence his powerful, independent voice. Stas should be released immediately.”
The Norwegian Helsinki Committee, which has called for Aseyev’s immediate release, described him as “the only independent journalist brave enough to continue to live and work in Donetsk when he was apprehended,” adding he was known for his “even-handed treatment" of both Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed fighters.
Other human rights groups and monitoring organizations have called for Aseyev’s release, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, and the Committee to Project Journalists (CPJ).
Russian State TV ‘Confession’
In August 2018, Aseyev, who at that point had been held incommunicado for more than a year, appeared on Russian state TV in handcuffs.
Russian state broadcaster Rossiya 24 aired an interview with Aseyev in which he “confessed” to the espionage charge levied against him. Co-workers and colleagues later claimed that his confession was coerced, and the broadcast itself prompted heavy criticism.
"Hauling a jailed journalist in front of a camera and apparently forcing him to equate his reporting with spying is an outrage," CPJ Deputy Executive Director Robert Mahoney said at the time.
RFE/RL likewise questioned “the circumstances of his “purported” on-air confession. “We have no idea when it was made, or under what conditions or duress," said RFE/RL spokesperson Joanna Levison.
There is evidence Aseyev was tortured while in custody. A former prisoner who was held in a cell next to Aseyev said the journalist had been subjected to electric shock torture, among other abuses.
Detentions, Disappearances -- Human Rights Violations
The alleged abuses against Aseyev correspond with more systemic trends documented in a 2016 U.N. Human Rights Office report, which noted “persistent patterns of human rights violations in eastern Ukraine.”
“Enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment remain deeply entrenched practices, both in the territories controlled by the armed groups and in the territories controlled by the Government,” the U.N .office found.
In a 2016 report, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch documented nine cases in which Russia-backed separatists “held civilians in arbitrary, incommunicado detention for weeks or months without charge and, in most cases, subjected them to ill-treatment.”
The human rights organizations documented a pattern in which individuals were charged, “on clearly fabricated evidence or without any tangible evidence at all,” with spying for the Ukrainian government or being party to extremist organizations, after which they were transferred to remand prisons.
Likewise, Amnesty International called the espionage charge against Aseyev “a trumped up accusation, based solely on his legitimate, peaceful work as a journalist.”
Amnesty International said it also received information saying Aseyev had been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment in detention, which the organization was not able to confirm but regarded as “plausible.”
Amnesty reported on a lack of checks and balances in both the DNR and Luhansk People’s Republic, noting that local security services regularly detained people arbitrarily and often used torture and ill-treatment to extract confessions from them.
Amnesty further noted the DNR is lacking “properly constituted courts which meet international law and standards,” adding: “Under international humanitarian law, the passing of sentences and carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court which complies with international law and standards on fair trial is a war crime.”
Aseyev counts as one among hundreds whom Ukrainian rights campaigners have dubbed "Kremlin hostages."
Earlier this month, VOA’s Jamie Dettmer reported Russian authorities are holding 86 captives in Crimea, while Russian-backed militants in the Donbas are holding at least 227 Ukrainians hostage.
In September 2019, Ukraine and Russia carried out a prisoner swap that saw 70 people exchanged. They included Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, a Crimean native whom had been sentenced to 20 years on questionable terrorism charges, and 24 Ukrainian sailors detained by Russian forces last year while attempting to navigate the Kerch Strait near Russian-occupied Crimea.
Simon Ostrovsky, an American journalist who was beaten and interrogated after being detained by Russian-based separatists in Slovyansk, Ukraine in April 2014, wrote on social media that he hoped Aseyev’s “official conviction” could serve as a prelude to another prisoner exchange.
Ostrovsky himself was reportedly abducted for the purposes of one such exchange.
"We need prisoners. We need a bargaining chip," Vyacheslav Ponomaryov, the onetime "mayor" of the city of Slovyansk, told Gazeta.ru at the time of Ostrovsky’s abduction. "Many of our comrades are locked up. They're being taken to Kyiv and tortured. Well, we're doing the same thing. Taking them prisoner, I mean."