Monday, September 25

‘They said they’d mutilate and kill me,’ says kidnapped Ukrainian journalist | Ukraine

Around lunchtime on 12 March, Oleh Baturin, a Ukrainian journalist in the occupied region of Kherson, received a phone call from an unknown number. It was the activist Serhiy Tsygipa. “I really need to see you, I’m ready to get to Kakhovka,” he said calmly. They agreed to meet at 5pm at the city’s bus station.

Having warned his family where he was going and who he was meeting, Baturin, 43, who works at the independent newspaper Novyi Den (New Day), left his ID and phone at home and went to the meeting place. But Tsygipa was not there. It was a trap. As he turned to go home, he heard a van door slam and the clatter of feet heading towards him.

Over the next eight days, he said, he was held captive with little water, food or medicine. Sunday will mark two weeks since his release from him. speaking to the Observer, he described how he was interrogated, tortured, threatened with mutilation and death, and told that his family would suffer. He had four ribs broken, he said.

“Get down on your knees, bitch!” the Russian soldiers said as they captured him, knocking him to the ground, twisting his arms back, and roughly handcuffing him. Hitting him below the knees and on the back with gun butts and kicks, they yelled: “What is your name? Where is your ID? Where is the phone? After that, they threw him on the floor of the van.

“During the first interrogations, my hangmen said they were looking for me and that they wanted revenge on me as a journalist, for my professional activities,” Baturin said in a speech to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) on Wednesday.

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“They tortured me, threatened to mutilate me, threatened to kill me, asked a lot of stupid questions – who are the organizers of pro-Ukrainian rallies in the Kherson region, who runs Telegram channels, who have weapons, or do we have activists and independent journalists from Belarus?”

“The Russian invaders have only one goal – to break down the citizens of Ukraine, to intimidate them and to completely destroy independent journalism, to crush civil activists and journalists physically and psychologically,” he added.

Under threat of being shot, he was forced to sign a document stating he would “cooperate with the federal authorities of the Russian federation”. That night, at Nova Kakhovka police station, he was beaten and chained to a radiator. By the next morning, his right hand swollen from the chains, he knew that he might die.

Baturin has always had a reputation as an uncompromising, courageous fighter against injustice, corruption and the violation of human rights.

Before his capture, he had spoken to colleagues who had closed their accounts and websites in response to Russia’s new media laws (and the risk of up to 15 years in prison). Baturin was wondering what he would be accused of. But, he said, he was never given specific charges.

His first night and the following morning were the worst. He avoids details, simply saying they used physical violence and threatened to kill.

On the morning of 13 March, Baturin said he was driven, along with other details, in a civilian car playing Ukrainian music to Nova Kakhovka city hall. He was calm, although he was convinced they would put him up against a wall or take him into a field and shoot him. The only thing he was worried about was that his family could suffer.

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After two hours, they arrived somewhere that sounded like a military training ground. He could hear a military speech and inside there was a strong medical smell. They were taken to a room where there was a sharp smell of alcohol, like a vodka factory, the aromas of food were mixed in, as if Russians had been drinking and eating here for days.

Then he heard Tsygipa’s voice and realized that he, too, had been kidnapped and forced to call him by the Russians. Baturin feared that he would also be forced to call someone and lure them into a trap. For the first time he was able to use a toilet and he was given his second glass of water (his first was at 5pm the day before). He would not be fed until 45 hours after his arrest when he was given millet porridge with meat.

During fresh interrogations, which were more professional than the others, he was asked who organized the Kherson rallies, who ran the city’s Telegram channels and if he knew any Belarusian journalists and activists who might be in Kherson. But over time, he felt like his information about him was not interesting to the Russians. They seemed to be playing interrogation, it was all a farce. “You’re lucky, I’m a calm person,” the FSB officer told him, adding that in other rooms they were pushing harder.

His right hand was shaking violently, he had to hold it with his left hand. As the psychologist later explained to him, the body was looking for a way to physically release stress.

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In the succeeding days, he said the cells filled with new details – mostly veterans who had fought in Donetsk and Luhansk. He could hear their cries as they were beaten daily, which was an additional torture.

His own interrogations became chaotic, conducted by different people at unpredictable times, he said. The guards made rounds in the evenings and asked: “Is everything all right?” If you didn’t answer yes, they could break in and start beating you. The cell had a tap with water and a hole in the floor. No bedding, no towels, no toilet paper.

On 18 March, under the guise of a Covid test, they took his DNA and fingerprints and entered them into a database. They also took his photo of him. Two days later, on March 20, they told him: “Pack your things, we will take you home.”

When he got home, he was glad to take a walk, breathe clean air, look at the Ukrainian flags and be reunited with his family. He couldn’t sleep on the first night, but the next day, when friends came and he told them everything, he said he finally felt calm.

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