When the Russian army uses kidnappings to intimidate Ukrainians

Russian forces arbitrarily detain Ukrainian journalists, civil servants, human rights activists and even citizens who oppose the invasion of their country. According to some reports, this strategy is used to instill fear in local communities, since forced detentions can last from one day to two weeks.

On a frosty morning on March 23, the Russian military knocked on the door of Svetlana Zalizetskaya, who lives in Melitopol in southeastern Ukraine. Believing they were seeing her inside, they found themselves face to face with her elderly parents. “I was not at home at the time,” she told France 24. Three armed men ransacked the apartment, turning it “upside down” before taking her father, 75, to an unknown destination.

Svetlana Zalizetskaya, director of the local newspaper The Main Newspaper of Melitopol and the news site RIA-Melitopol, had fled the city a few days earlier. “I was intimidated by Galina Danilchenko,” she added, referring to the pro-Russian interim mayor who replaced Ivan Fedorov, who himself was kidnapped on March 11 and then finally released in exchange for nine Russian conscripts.

“[Galina Danilchenko] asked me to become a Russian propagandist and start reporting in support of the occupation. She tried to convince me by promising a good career in Moscow,” explains Svetlana Zalizetskaya, who refused this offer. Fearing reprisals, she packed her things to leave the city. A few days later, she received a call and was told that his father had been taken hostage.

“Their request was clear: they would let him go if I surrendered,” she explains. Svetlana Zalizetskaya once again refused the Russian offer. “So they demanded that I close RIA-Melitopol,” she says.

On March 25, two days after her father’s abduction, she posted on Facebook that she was handing over her information site to third parties “in exchange for evacuation” and “on Ukrainian-controlled territory,” which she said would “provide objective information.” She still shares RIA-Melitopol articles on her Facebook page, but says she has not agreed to further collaboration since her post.

Her father was released later that day, relatively unharmed but deprived of the medicine he needed and deeply shaken by his kidnapping. Although Svetlana Zalizetskaya feels relieved, the anger she feels is palpable. “I consider this kind of action by the occupying forces as terrorism,” she added, while stating that she was determined to continue her journalistic work to document the horrors that Ukrainians face in the territories occupied by Russia.

This is not the first time a journalist or his relative has been detained by Russian troops in Ukraine. A UN monitoring mission that was on site and compiled a list of abductions found that 21 journalists and civil society activists had been arrested since the Russian invasion began on February 24. Families are often kept in the dark, not knowing where their loved ones are being held, unaware of what is happening to them. According to the UN, of the 21 people abducted, only nine “would have been released.”

The NGO Reporters Without Borders has published a series of disturbing testimonies about detentions, torture, intimidation and threats faced by media workers in Ukraine.

‘Increasingly dangerous’ territory for journalists

According to the UN, many of the kidnappers originate from the Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporozhye regions, where self-proclaimed “republics” and pro-Russian armed groups operate allied with the Russian Federation. Cases have also been reported in parts of Kyiv, Heron, Donetsk, Sumy and Chernigov.

“It is becoming more and more dangerous for journalists and editors to remain in the regions occupied by Russia,” Serhiy Tomilenko, president of the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine, warns in an interview with France 24. “They are isolated in these territories,” he emphasizes. .They can’t leave.

Local officials are also being detained. Alleged kidnappings have also been reported in northern cities, including Nova Kakhovka, where the secretary of the city council disappeared, and Bucha, where six members of the local council were detained and eventually released, according to the BBC.

The UN found that 24 civil servants and representatives of local authorities were detained in Russian-controlled territories. It is reported that 13 of them were released, but the whereabouts and fate of the remaining 11 remain unknown.

Political scientist Mattia Nelles, usually based in Kyiv but now based in Germany, has closely followed reports of kidnappings in eastern and southern Ukraine. According to him, Russian forces will pursue “anyone who actively condemns the occupation” and will be especially quick to arrest those who call for demonstrations.

“I even heard of two cases in Kherson where people were randomly stopped at checkpoints after Russian security forces searched their phones and found that many pro-Ukrainian channels were open on their phones. [application] Telegram, he says. My friend who lives there says he never picks up the phone when he leaves again.”

“You Can Be Next”

Mattia Nelles, his Ukrainian wife and his relatives managed to flee the country at an early age, although most of their family still lives in Svatovo, a city located in the Luhansk region. On March 26, neighbors told my uncle that Russian troops had come for him. “The reason was unclear, but we assumed it was because he is a veteran. In 2016 and 2018, he served as a medic in the Ukrainian army in Donbas.”

While he was in hiding, his uncle was discovered by Russian troops, who arrested him for questioning. “It lasted three hours,” says Mattia Nelles. “But it turns out that they were looking for his son-in-law, a real soldier who registered in my uncle’s house. Hence the confusion.”

His next of kin were eventually released, and although he was deeply distressed, he was unharmed. Others, like the Ukrainian Radio France fixer who was tortured for nine days, were less fortunate.

“There are different degrees of severity of how [les occupants russes] treat people, says the political scientist. — I think, on a case by case basis. It depends on the degree of resistance of a person, his commitment to the Ukrainian army or the problem that he can create for the occupiers.”

It also depends on what the Russian forces want from the detainees. Referring to the kidnapping of Svetlana Zalizetskaya’s father, Serhiy Tomilenko explained that this case is a clear example of Russia’s attempts to neutralize the Ukrainian media using the carrot and stick strategy.

“First they arrest local journalists, they try to intimidate them into saying that they support the occupation,” he said. If this fails, Russian forces will “simply demand that they stop covering the news.”

The purpose of these kidnappings is clear: to instill fear in the local population, making it easier for Russian forces to control.

And for some it seems to work. Sergei Tomilenko hears about new abductions every day and knows more and more fellow journalists who are afraid to leave their homes. “In Kherson, two colleagues have not left the house for two weeks,” he said.

To deal with this situation, human rights organizations in Ukraine are compiling missing persons lists and campaigning to shed light on what is happening on the ground. The National Union of Journalists of Ukraine also published a number of recommendations for journalists working in the occupied territories, asking them to refrain from any publications on social networks and from using pseudonyms if they work as local correspondents for international or national media.

But the feeling of intimidation caused by kidnappings can be felt even by the bravest soul. “The message sent is as follows: “If you dare to speak, you can be next,” concludes Mattia Nelles. It’s horrible. Especially for those who hold any official position.”

This article is an adaptation of an article available in the original version here.

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