Reporters from Russia's Zvezda TV channel have been freed from captivity in Ukraine, where Right Sector fighters detained, interrogated, and beat them for ransom. Risking their lives, they didn’t turn off their phones, which was crucial for their release.
A plane carrying Evgeny Davydov and Nikita Konashenkov landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport at 15:44 GMT on Monday. A few hours before their arrival in the Russian capital, the two journalists were handed over to Russian naval attaché Eduard Belashev in the city of Dnepropetrovsk.
The journalists spent two days in captivity, and were subjected to long questioning, intimidation, and beatings.
Recent images of the two men show the areas around their eyes covered in bruises. Their colleagues say that Davydov has complained of pain in his ear and partial hearing loss.
Zvezda TV channel has shared details of the reporters' detention and release. The channel’s head, Aleksey Pimanov, said that Davydov and Konashenkov were freed due to “diplomatic efforts.” The station's management sent pleas to new Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), and the Ukrainian judiciary demanding the journalists' immediate release.
The Russian Foreign Ministry called the release “good news” and the “result of persistent work of all of our structures with the active participation and support of the Russian media.” Moscow says the “illegal practice of detaining journalists in Ukraine” must stop, and that the right to peaceful and objective press coverage of events in Ukraine must be safeguarded.
The reporters were detained on June 14 while on their way to the airport. Saturday was meant to be the last day of their business trip in turbulent Ukraine and they were expected to fly home. They had been in Ukraine for over a month.
Constantly on the phone with Zvezda TV channel’s editors, Evgeny and Nikita successfully passed several checkpoints. However, they were stopped and detained at a post of the Ukrainian National Guard near Pokrovskoye, and the connection with the reporters was temporarily lost.
Zvezda journalists in Moscow launched a massive operation trying to find their colleagues. Both the Right Sector and the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) refused to comment on the detentions.
Eventually, the channel managed to determine the address of where Evgeny and Nikita were being held. This finding showed that Right Sector fighters were behind the detention – the building is shared by the SBU and the radical group. As Zvezda journalists found out later, the man who interrogated their detained colleagues was Maksim Miroshnichenko, the Right Sector’s press secretary in Dnepropetrovsk.
During the interrogation process, the journalists kept one of their phones constantly connected to the channel’s headquarters. The recording will now be transferred to authorities, who will launch a torture case. The use of force against the reporters can be heard on the recording.
Throughout the questioning, which was full of cursing, Miroshnichenko reportedly tried to force the journalists to admit they lied about the true purpose of their visit. Under pressure, the interrogators forced the Russian crew to denounce their reporting on the use of white phosphorus by the Ukrainian military in an aerial assault on the outskirts of Slavyansk on Thursday.
After the channel managed to determine the journalists' whereabouts, representatives of the Right Sector contacted Zvezda demanding a US$200,000 ransom for the reporters, who they called “scum.” Failure to provide the money would result in consequences, with the captors sending a message to family members that the journalists would be “kept for some 10 years.”
On Monday, a YouTube video surfaced showing Davydov and Konashenkov with bruises on their faces. In the footage, the two are seemingly being forced to say they have “no complaints” about their treatment by the Right Sector, and that the visible hemorrhages on their bodies were caused by a fight with a colleague.
Their documents also surfaced on the internet, showing they were accredited by the Central Election Commission of Ukraine. But, in violation of all norms of international law and the Geneva Convention, the reporters were forced to sign statements which falsely declared their lack of professional ethics.
“Everything is done on the orders of the Kremlin in order to use this information in international politics to the detriment of Ukraine,” Davydov's forced statement allegedly read.
Konashenkov's written testament apparently claimed that they covered Ukrainian roadblocks, “also on Moscow's orders,” in order to make “untrue photographs.”
Upon their safe return to Russia, the journalists were taken to hospital for treatment. Before they boarded the ambulance, they gave a few comments to the press crew that greeted them at the airport. They thanked the Russian authorities and media channels for helping secure their release. They also briefly shared the details of their abduction.
“We were traveling from Donetsk to Dnepropetrovsk. We had a direct return flight from Dnepropetrovsk to Moscow on Saturday. About 120 km from Dnepropetrovsk, we were stopped at a roadblock. This was the National Guard's checkpoint. They stopped us, asked us for our documents, checked all our personal possessions, examining everything,” the duo told journalists.
“Seeing our Russian passports and that we are Zvezda TV staff, their face expressions changed. They smirked and said that they have a jackpot in their hands. They abducted us, blindfolded us, and placed us in a car, before driving us somewhere to a field, then to some base. They threw us in a cellar.”
A press conference with Konashenkov and Davydov is scheduled to take place later on Tuesday.
Russian journalists from a range of media outlets have been repeatedly detained during the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Another set of Zvezda crew members were abducted two weeks ago and released after several days of interrogation on accusations of espionage. RT contributor and UK national Graham Phillips was detained for over 36 hours by Kiev military forces back in May. Earlier, two Russian journalists working for LifeNews TV channel were also captured by Kiev forces, forced on their knees at gunpoint and taken to Kiev for interrogations which lasted almost one week.