Ukraine: Covering My Own Kidnapping

A year after his detention, a Ukrainian journalist sees those who ordered his abuse face trial.

Ukraine: Covering My Own Kidnapping

A year after his detention, a Ukrainian journalist sees those who ordered his abuse face trial.

Oleh Baturin was kidnapped on March 12 and subjected to eight days of physical and psychological pressure before being released.
Oleh Baturin was kidnapped on March 12 and subjected to eight days of physical and psychological pressure before being released. © Photo courtesy of O. Baturin
Tuesday, 21 March, 2023

It is a strange feeling to write about a criminal case related to your own kidnapping.

A year ago, at 5pm on March 12, 2022, I arrived at the Kakhovka bus station to meet a local activist who had asked to talk to me. 

Instead, a minivan with armed men in balaclavas was waiting for me. They handcuffed and beat me, before taking me to the Novokakhov city hall, already under Russian military control. 

The next day, amongst the other prisoners, I recognised the voice of Serhiy Tsyhipa, the activist who had asked to meet me. He was captured in Nova Kakhovka shortly before my abduction.

I spent more than a week detained in appalling conditions, beaten, interrogated and threatened with death.

On March 3, the Suvorovskiy district court of the city of Odesa began hearing the case of the men charged with ordering my detention, along with the kidnapping of the mayor of Tavriysk, Mykola Rizak. 

The suspects are Vladimir Leontiev, a native of the Russian Federation and former Kyiv resident who was appointed head of the occupation administration of the city of Nova Kakhovka, and Valentyn Motuzenko, from the Donetsk region, an advisor to the head of the de facto administration.

I saw both men on my arrival at Novaya Kakhovka city hall. As armed men beat me, the two suspects made a point of telling me how they were going to kill me. 

"[We] will slowly cut off the skin on your body so that you die slowly and in great agony. You will never write anything again, journalist Baturin," Leontiev promised me. He told me his name; I only learned of Motuzenko’s identity a few months later. 

This was the first and last time I encountered them, and I am unlikely to meet them again as the case against them will be heard in absentia. 

Motuzenko was already a wanted man. During the initial Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, he was accused of creating paramilitary or armed formations not provided for by Ukrainian law, an offence punishable by a prison term of between ten and 15 years. Since the beginning of 2015, Motuzenko has been wanted as a person hiding from pre-trial investigation authorities.

Both suspects appeared in occupied Nova Kakhovka on the first day of Russia's full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, when the Russian military took control of the left bank of the Kherson region.

Motuzenko was newly arrived in Nova Kakhovka city, unlike his old friend Leontiev who was well known locally. He had worked in management positions in a variety of local businesses Chumak, Unifer and Nova Kakhovka Building Materials Plant No. 1". In all of these roles he he was fired amid scandals. Leontiev was also known for his love of military reenactments and volunteer activities.

On February 25, the Russian military seized the building of the Novokakhovska city council and ordered offices set aside for Motuzenko and Leontiev. The city’s legitimate authorities were forced to leave their workplace. But the Nova Kakhovka mayor Volodymyr Kovalenko and his first deputy Oleh Tarabaka remained in the occupied city for almost five months and left for Ukrainian-controlled territory only on July 15.

At the beginning of March 2022, the Russians began harassing the civilian population in the Kakhovsky district. Early in the morning on March 8, they broke into the house of a local activist Halyna Zakharchenko, who managed to hide and avoid capture. A few days later, Tsyhipa was captured; he remains in Russian detention. Most recently, Tsygipa has been held in the Simferopol pre-trial detention centre, accused of spying for Ukraine.

Then on March 12, according to the investigation, Leontiev and Motuzenko instructed military personnel under their control to kidnap me, a journalist for the Kherson regional Noviy Den newspaper. This was reportedly due to my pro-Ukrainian position. 

The report of suspicion to Leontiev described what happened next. 

“The journalist was caught at the bus station in the city of Kakhovka, taken to Nova Kakhovka city, threatened with death, hit with the butt of a machine gun, as a result of which four ribs were broken,” it read.  “In the previously seized building of the Kakhovsky district police department, Oleh Baturin was handcuffed to a battery and kept in a cold office in conditions that were exhausting for the human body, forcing him to act against his will.”

The next morning, March 13, I and several other prisoners were taken out of the police building and led somewhere. It was very cold that day and, unable to fasten my jacket because of my handcuffed hands, I was shivering. I was sure that I was being taken to be shot.

However, we were brought to Kherson and interrogated for more than six hours in the regional administration building. In the evening I was taken to the Kherson detention centre at 3 Teploenergetikov Street and kept there until March 20.

On March 16, according to the court case, Motuzenko ordered the arrest of the secretary of the Nova Kakhovka city council, Dmytro Vasylyev. He taken in handcuffs to the same building as me and held captive until April 30. Psychological violence and moral pressure were applied to convince Vasylyev to cooperate with the occupation authorities.

As in my case and that of many other prisoners, Vasylyev was not told exactly what he was being detained for. 

Later, he told me during an interview for The Reckoning Project: Ukraine Testifies  - the initiative I joined after my release to collect evidence of war crimes in the Kherson region -  that he was interrogated by six different men who did not give their names and tried not to show their faces.

“They knew that I was born in Moscow, and asked why I was in prison,” Vasylyev told me. “I replied that I didn't understand it myself. Such ‘conversations’ mostly ended in the same way - with an offer to side with the occupiers. I answered this to the last investigator, ‘You know, if this is already being discussed, then let me just sit here.’ They couldn’t understand why I, a Russian originally, didn’t want to cooperate with them.”

"Vasylyev was illegally deprived of his liberty because he took a pro-Ukrainian position and supported the Nova Kakhovka is Ukraine movement,” read the January 19, 2023 suspicion issued against Motuzenko. “Thus, Valentin Motuzenko violated the laws and customs of war and the requirements of Articles 3, 31, 32, 147 of the Convention on the Protection of the Civilian Population in Time of War of August 12, 1949 and Article 51 of the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949, which concerns the protection of victims of international armed conflicts." 

On January 27 2023, 54-year-old Vasylyev died. There were signs that his health had been undermined by a long stay in Russian captivity. 

On April 1, Motuzenko, together with armed Russian soldiers, broke into the building of the Kakhovka City Council, removed Vitaliy Nemerets from the post of the city's mayor, and presented the head of the occupation administration, who became a local collaborator, Pavlo Filipchuk. Nemerets was forced to leave the city for Ukrainian-controlled territory.

The suspects also ordered the arrest of the 63-year-old Rizak, mayor of the Kakhovsky district town of Tavriysk. He was seized on April 1, 2022 and held in a basement, handcuffed to a battery and denied food and water.

Rizak was detained for ten days, during which time his health worsened. On April 14 he announced his resignation, although after his release he left for Ukrainian-controlled territory and after treatment continued to work. On October 28, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appointed Rizak as head of the Tavriysk City military administration.

In April 2022,  Leontiev was informed of suspicion of collaborative activities as the illegal head of Nova Kakhovka. The sanction of the article (Part 1, Part 5 of Article 111-1 of the criminal code of Ukraine) provides from five to 10 years of imprisonment. For the cruel treatment of Vasyliev, Rizak and myself, violations of the laws and customs of war, Leontiev and Motuzenko face eight to 12 years of imprisonment.

Both suspects remain in the territory of Kakhovsky district. Leontiev continues to lead the occupation administration of Nova Kakhovka. Motuzenko reportedly stepped down from this role in occupation administration of the city in early summer 2022, although there have reports that he has been sighted at Russian checkpoints set up on the occupied left bank part of the Kherson region.

Absentee pretrial investigation and sentencing are provided for by Ukrainian legislation, which increases the chances of punishment for Leontiev and Motuzenko.

Of course, they are not the only ones involved in kidnapping and torture. But I hope that the other perpetrators of these crimes, along with those who gave the order to launch a full-scale war against Ukraine, will surely be punished someday.

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