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Ukrainian journalist released from Russian captivity: 'They were most interested in finding organizers of pro-Ukrainian rallies'
Oleh Baturin, a journalist for the Novy Den, a newspaper in Ukraine’s southern Kherson Oblast, was kidnapped by the Russian military on March 12.
Baturin lives in Kakhovka, a city of 35,000 people 90 kilometers to the west from the regional capital Kherson. For many years he has been covering life in the city and neighboring towns, including Nova Kakhovka, Tavriysk, Beryslav, and others. He has covered the local authorities and informal elites, often critically.
From the first days of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, Baturin has been actively describing the events related to the war. He was writing clearly about the crimes committed by Russians, including kidnapping and killing of civilians.
It likely got him the attention of the Russian forces. He was kidnapped at a local bus station in Kakhovka on March 12, illegally detained for more than a week by the Russian FSB, and released only on March 20.
According to the journalist, the Russians who were interrogating him were interested, above all, in finding the organizers of pro-Ukrainian rallies in Kherson Oblast.
The following is a Q&A with Baturin, conducted soon after his release:
Q: Can you describe what happened on March 12?
Oleh Baturin: In the afternoon, Serhiy Tsygipa (activist from Nova Kakhovka) called me from an unknown number. He wanted to meet near the bus station at 5 p.m. He didn’t mention the purpose of the meeting. The next day I realized he had already been arrested by the moment he called me.
Looking back, I can say that, perhaps, I should have felt the danger, analyzed the situation, and understood that this was a trap. But it has already happened. And if I hadn't been caught then, I would have been caught another time.
When I approached the bus station, I saw a van. I later learned it was stolen from a deputy of the Tavriysk City Council. Several soldiers rushed out of the van. They looked like the "green men" involved in the (2014) occupation of Crimea. They attacked me: "Don’t move, face down, on your knees!"
I was told to hand over my documents and phone. But I didn't bring them with me. Then they handcuffed me and threw me on the van’s floor. One stood with his foot on my back and pressed me down with the butt of his gun. I was taken to the Nova Kakhovka City Council, where they interrogated me.
Q: Can you describe the interrogation?
Oleh Baturin: I can't give all the details for now, but it was terrible. The interrogation was conducted in a brutal form, using all sorts of influence. I was lucky to be wearing a thick, warm jacket that softened the hits I got. There were a few more people besides me who were being pressured there.
During these days, I was repeatedly threatened, including with murder. They wanted to know the organizers of rallies in Kakhovka, Nova Kakhovka, and Kherson.
After the first interrogation, we were taken to the Nova Kakhovka Police Department, where searches and threats continued. Then I was taken to a nearby building and handcuffed to the heating radiator. I was kept there from approximately 8 p.m. of March 12 to 9 a.m. of March 13. Without food, in a very cold room. My hands got swollen from the handcuffs.
In the morning, we were taken out into the corridor, put in the car and driven somewhere. That first evening and the morning were the worst. I thought they were taking me somewhere to kill. But then I thought our ride was too long for this to be true.
Several hours later, we were brought to a room with many soldiers in it talking about some “Chechen” from time to time. While in this room, I could hear explosions outside. Later I realized I was in the building of the Kherson Regional State Administration.
I noticed a logo on the carpet, and in our Kakhovka administration, we have it too – it’s sort of a symbol of the Kherson Oblast. This was when I heard Tsygipa's voice and them calling his name. He was being interrogated in another room.
I could also hear other detainees being interrogated in other rooms. Since then, I have heard nothing about Tsygipa and I don't know what happened to him.
In Kherson, for the first time, I was allowed to use the toilet. They also gave me a glass of water.
Since Sunday (March 13), I had been calmer. The interrogations were conducted almost without threats and physical violence. I was only exposed to psychological pressure.
Q: Can you tell more about that psychological pressure?
Oleh Baturin: For example, they kept telling me, “From now on, you won’t be able to write","We have you on the hook, we will discredit you." But it was done in such a manner that I didn’t take it very seriously.
I could hear some noise and explosions from the street all the time. And when the man who interrogated me opened the window, I heard the sounds of a huge rally: Protesters were expressing their hatred towards Russians.
Q: How did the man who interrogated you react to the street protest?
Oleh Baturin: I felt he was demotivated and confused. And he said, "I don’t fucking understand: We came here to protect them, but look at them, they are gathering to protest against us." He was definitely Russian, I figured that from the questions he asked me about our region. I asked if I was in Kherson, and he confirmed that. After that, I was taken to the pre-trial detention center of one of the district police departments in Kherson.
Q: Did you speak Russian with them?
Oleh Baturin: Yes. Their reaction to any Ukrainian speech was very aggressive. It was clear from the very beginning. There was a guy who spoke Ukrainian, so they beat him only for that reason and forced him to speak "understandable language" because they could not understand him.
Q: What happened at the detention center? What were the conditions there like?
Oleh Baturin: It seems that at first there were few people there, then the center got crowded. Four-bed cells. First, they practiced solitary cells, but then started assigning more than one person to each cell. There were two foreigners in the neighboring cells, one of whom was seriously ill. They couldn't communicate with the foreigners because they didn't know their language. They tried to administer some antibiotics to the sick man. No doctors were allowed.
They would interrogate us every now and then. Some of the interrogators were tough, some not. These were all different people. Some had a thick accent – maybe they were Chechens, Dagestanis, I’m not sure. There were some "Donetsk people," at least that's what they were called.
Again, they asked about the organizers of the rallies. They also wanted to know the names of persons in charge of some Telegram channels. They tried to intimidate me. But I got the feeling they either didn't have clear instructions, or there was some kind of a mess, disorganization between them. I could not see other people they interrogated. Either I had to sit with a bowed head, or they spoke to me through a small window in the cell door.
Q: Do you know who else was detained in that center? Were there any women?
Oleh Baturin: I didn't hear any women's voices. As far as I understand, the other detainees were Ukrainian veterans who had participated in the anti-terrorist operation in the Donbas.
Q: When was the first time you were given food after your detention?
Oleh Baturin: It was on Monday, March 14, in the afternoon. The second time was on Tuesday morning. Both times it was the same food. It looked like Ukrainian army supplies. A portion of 350 grams in a foil package. Millet porridge with meat. They were giving me one or two servings of this porridge per day.
Q: How did they release you?
Oleh Baturin: They took my fingerprints and photos of me, and repeated I was on their hook now. They released me together with two other men. Me and another guy were brought back to Kakhovka, and the third man to Nova Kakhovka. There were no instructions given to me, or attempts to recruit me, but there is no guarantee they will not try to do so later. In the end, they shrugged their shoulders and, as if apologizing for making us wait, said it took them a long time to find a car to take us to Kakhovka.
Q: What do you think was the purpose of kidnapping and interrogating you?
Oleh Baturin: The nature of the interrogations and the fact they were poorly related to one another gives me a reason to think this could be a way in which some of my enemies from Kakhovka or Nova Kakhovka, who may be collaborating with Russians, decided to punish me. On the first evening, they clearly knew they had detained a journalist, they knew I was publishing articles.