Journalist who faked death had come to Israel after fleeing Russia
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Journalist who faked death had come to Israel after fleeing Russia

Arkady Babchenko, whose maternal grandmother is Jewish, came to Tel Aviv after being forced to leave Prague over visa issues; praised country for its openness before moving to Kiev

Arkady Babchenko at the Western Wall in June 2017. (Facebook)
Arkady Babchenko at the Western Wall in June 2017. (Facebook)

The Ukrainian journalist who faked his own death as part of a bizarre plot to collar those seeking to kill him briefly lived in Israel after fleeing Russia.

Arkady Babchenko, a critic of the Kremlin, was said to have been shot dead in his apartment building in the capital city of Kiev on Tuesday. Ukraine blamed Russia for the “death” of Babchenko, but on Wednesday brought him out, alive, during a press conference, announcing that the ruse had been designed to thwart an assassination plot.

Babchenko, whose maternal grandmother is Jewish, reportedly fled from Russia to the Czech Republic, Israel and finally Ukraine in 2017 after death threats were made against him over reporting and a Facebook post critical of the Russian regime.

Babchenko wrote on Facebook in early 2017 that he came under threat for a post in which he noted following a plane crash that killed members of a Russian military choir on their way to Syria that he was not sorry because Russia was carrying out airstrikes in Aleppo.

He was in the Czech Republic until May 30, but left after apparent visa issues, and Facebook posts throughout June show him in Tel Aviv.

Мы тоже отжигаем.

Posted by Аркадий Бабченко on Sunday, 11 June 2017

By early July, he was in Kiev, where he has been since.

It’s not clear if he had sought to remain in Israel or why he left. While in Israel, he wrote several Facebook posts praising the country for its diversity and at one point said he was happy to live in a country where he doesn’t have to hear about Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In September, he posted a picture of himself giving a talk at a synagogue.

Posted by Аркадий Бабченко on Monday, 18 September 2017

Babchenko, one of Russia’s best-known war reporters, had spoken and written about needing to leave Russia because of threats against him and his family. He said his home address was published online and the threats he received were made by phone, email and social media.

Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine were topics on which the journalist was scathingly critical of the Kremlin.

After posting that he wasn’t sorry about the plane crash that killed 92 members of the band, state TV journalists and others on their way to Syria, several Russian lawmakers said he should be stripped of his citizenship over the comment, and Russian state media called him a traitor.

Ilya Ponomarev, a former Russian lawmaker who also moved to Ukraine, said Babchenko continued being threatened after he settled last fall in Kiev, where he worked as a host for the Crimean Tatar TV station.

On Wednesday night, dozens of journalists descended upon the central square in Kiev, laughing, hugging and quaffing sparkling wine as they celebrated the “resurrection” of their Russian colleague and Kremlin critic.

“It’s an incredible story of a resurrection,” joked Russian journalist Pavel Kanygin who like several of his Russian colleagues had rushed to Kiev to cover the story. “It’s a miracle, but a miracle that turned out to be a staged drama.”

Kiev Police Chief Andriy Krishchenko had announced Babchenko’s death Tuesday, saying the journalist’s wife found him bleeding at their apartment building in Kiev but that he died en route to the hospital. Lawmaker Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the interior minister, said the assailant had waited on a staircase in the building and shot Babchenko in the back as he was going to buy bread.

Just hours before the shooting was reported, Babchenko wrote on Facebook that he considered the day a “second birthday” because it was the fourth anniversary of his missing a flight on a Ukrainian military helicopter that later was shot down in the conflict between Ukraine and Moscow-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country.

Anti-Kremlin Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko (C), the head of Ukraine’s security service Vasyl Grytsak (L) and the Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko (R) attend a press conference at the Ukrainian Security Service headquarters in Kiev on May 30, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Sergei SUPINSKY)

At the start of Wednesday’s news conference, Gritsak announced the journalist’s murder had been solved and called the day Babchenko’s “third birthday.”

Babchenko, clad in a black sweatshirt, walked into the room as other reporters gasped and exclaimed their surprise, then broke into applause.

“I’m still alive,” an uneasy-looking Babchenko said with a straight face. Then he apologized for the deception.

“I know that sickening feeling when you bury a colleague,” he added.

Babchenko himself was in a meeting with Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko as the group of journalists from local and international media popped corks and took selfies Wednesday night.

“We were preparing for the funeral. Many of us didn’t sleep last night. We bought plane tickets for the first flight to Kiev,” said Kanygin, who works for the investigative Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.

He was at the offices of the Ukrainian private television ATR, where Babchenko works, when the “murdered” journalist made his surprise reappearance.

“Everybody just erupted, shouting ‘hooray, he’s alive,’ it was an incredible moment,” he said.

Igor Solovey, international editor for the Ukrainian LB.ua news website, was all smiles as he stood in the square with a cigarette in his mouth and a plastic glass of bubbly in his hand.

“I just turned on the TV and saw his magical appearance,” he said. “It was a shock. I was standing, I had to sit down. I couldn’t even speak!”

Some in the news business wondered about the impact that Ukraine’s ruse will have on the media, in particular in public confidence in their work.

“For 24 hours we were putting out fake news,” one editor said.

“Obviously some think this will damage confidence in the special services, the security services and the media,” said Kanygin.

“Our readers or viewers are of course going to ask questions when we cry wolf.”

Solovey was looking on the bright side. “It’s to the credit of Ukraine’s special services that they saved a good man’s life.”

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