A Ukrainian opera director arrested in Italy at Russia’s request has pledged to continue his fight against the “oppression” of Vladimir Putin’s government as calls for his release mount from around the world.
Yevhen (Eugene) Lavrenchuk, 39, was detained in Naples on an international arrest warrant issued by Russia during a stopover in the city on 17 December.
Russia is seeking his extradition for financial crimes allegedly committed when he was director of the Polish Theatre in Moscow. Lavrenchuk left Russia for Ukraine in 2014 in protest at Russia’s annexation of Crimea that year.
Lavrenchuk told the court of appeal in Naples that he was being persecuted by Russia for publicly voicing his dissent. He claimed the persecution led to him being beaten up outside the Odessa opera and ballet theatre, where he was a director, in December 2020. He has refused extradition, saying that he feared being “exposed to discrimination”.
Lavrenchuk is being held at Poggioreale prison in Naples, where he was visited this week by Francesco Emilio Borrelli, a regional councillor for the Europa Verde party.
“I spoke to him for about 15 minutes during a prison check, which we do periodically,” Borrelli said.
“He was calm and in good form; he came across as a person aware of living an injustice and that in the end he will be proven right. He said he’s determined to return to his country to fight against the oppression of Putin’s regime.”
Lavrenchuk had never been to Italy before landing at Capodichino airport on 15 December on a stopover in his journey between Tel Aviv, where he had been visiting his sister, and Lviv in Ukraine.
He was arrested at a hotel close to the airport after providing his ID at check-in. By law, hotels in Italy have to scan a copy of a guest’s ID document; the details are then sent to the local police for registration.
“Police found his name had been inserted into an international search system with a mandate for his arrest,” said Alfonso Tatarano, Lavrenchuk’s lawyer. “He didn’t know he was being looked for by Russian authorities or that his name was in this system.”
The case comes as fears mount over the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Liudmyla Denisova, the Ukrainian parliamentary commissioner for human rights, said on Thursday that Lavrenchuk’s arrest was not made on the basis of a “red notice” by Interpol, as was originally reported, but on a circular note distributed to a limited number of countries.
“This testifies to Russia’s abuse of the Interpol charter and its misuse as an instrument of hybrid warfare for the politically motivated persecution of Ukrainians,” Denisova wrote on her Facebook page.
The warrant for Lavrenchuk’s arrest was issued by a Moscow court in July 2020. The accusations against him date back eight years, when he allegedly defrauded one of his students by asking for money to pay for repairs to the Polish Theatre.
However, it is not yet clear to Italian judicial authorities whether the court had issued a conviction for his alleged crimes or a preliminary injunction. The crime is punishable by 10 years in prison.
“We don’t yet have the complete records of the proceedings,” said Tatarano.
Russia has 40 days, from the day it was notified of Lavrenchuk’s arrest, to send its formal extradition request and related documents. The case is being handled by Luigi Riello, the chief public prosecutor of the Naples appeals court.
“He will evaluate on what basis the request for extradition is being made before submitting his evaluation to the court,” said Tatarano. “If there is concrete danger that Lavrenchuk will receive unfair treatment or that the accusations are based on political opinions, the court will reject the extradition request. But we have to prove this, and I think we can.”
Tatarano will appeal for Lavrenchuk to be either released from custody or placed under house arrest pending the outcome of the legal process.
A Facebook page calling for Lavrenchuk’s release has attracted over 1,400 followers while members of the Ukrainian community in Italy are planning to protest in Milan on Saturday. “We are mobilising to show how the Russian regime exploits legal cases against Ukrainian citizens for its own political purposes,” the protest organisers wrote on Facebook.
PEN America, the writers’ association, has also called for Lavrenchuk’s immediate release.
“The circumstances of Lavrenchuk’s detention – he was detained in Naples while transferring to a flight to Lviv after travelling from Tel Aviv – are a disturbing echo of Belarus’s move last year to force a Ryanair flight to land in order to arrest blogger Raman Protasevich,” said Polina Sadovskaya, PEN America’s Eurasia director. “In this case, Lavrenchuk is one of the most visible voices against the Russian annexation of Crimea in the Eurasian theatre community, and Russia’s extradition request against him bears the hallmarks of politically motivated repression.”