Human Bargaining Chips: Pro-Russia Militants Kidnap Ukrainian Journalists to Get What they Want out of Officials

Screenshot 2014-04-29 at 9.08.16 AMWith tears running down his cheeks, Ukrainian photojournalist Yevhen Hapych tells a nightmare of a story about the time he and his brother were kidnapped and subjected to psychological and physical torture.

“They [the captors] filled our ears with cotton, blindfolded us with a thick bandage. We could hear something, but saw nothing. We were placed on the floor of the car. It was like a police car, because it had a siren,” Hapych told Ukrainian news station TSN in an emotional interview just after the two were released last Friday.

Hapych, who is from western Ukraine, said one of the kidnappers threatened to stab him to death, telling him: “With this knife I’ve sent so many to the light.”

He and his brother spent three days locked up in a cold, damp basement in the embattled eastern Ukrainian city of Sloviansk — the latest flashpoint in Ukraine’s deepening crisis — with several other journalists that were abducted by pro-Kremlin paramilitaries. Some have been held for weeks in less-than-ideal conditions amid a conflict that has increasingly made them targets.

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Some of the captive correspondents are Westerners, such asAmerican journalist Simon Ostrovsky, who was called a “spy” and “provocateur” and nabbed near Sloviansk last week while filming a video report for Vice News. He was held in the same building as Hapych before being released on Thursday. His captors beat and blindfolded him, he said.

But the work and mere presence of one group of journalists in particular has provoked the ire of the pro-Kremlin crowd: Ukrainian journalists.

Armed with automatic weapons, the pro-Kremlin paramilitaries have laid siege to the region, storming key government buildings, constructing highway blockades to keep the Ukrainian military out. They have been working to control the country’s gritty industrial region known as the Donbass, which, after the annexed Crimea region, is home to the second-largest population of ethnic Russians in Ukraine.

The gunmen have also targeted journalists, taking them as prisoners to be used as bargaining chips in negotiations with Kiev. At highway checkpoints, it has become the norm to find an automatic rifle pointed at journalists’ heads while masked men dig through their bags and scrutinize accreditations.

Amnesty International spoke out about the abductions in eastern Ukraine and called the situation there “worrying,” saying journalists and officials who were unlawfully detained must be released immediately.

“The ongoing detention of journalists, municipal officials and residents by an armed group in Sloviansk speaks volumes about the lawlessness that has crept into parts of eastern Ukraine and raises fears the detainees could be at risk of torture and other ill-treatment,” Heather McGill, the group’s Ukraine researcher, said last Thursday.

Human Rights Watch weighed in with a statement on Tuesday, saying the escalating crisis is putting journalists at increasing risk of political-motivated violence, such as unlawful detention, abduction and assaults.

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