KIEV - To mimic gore, they used makeup and pig’s blood. They shot bullet holes in one of his sweatshirts. And to top off Arkady Babchenko’s staged murder, they even took him to the morgue.
The journalist revealed Thursday how Ukrainian security services faked his murder to thwart a contract hit allegedly arranged by Babchenko’s native Russia.
Police said Tuesday night that Babchenko had been shot and killed in his apartment building. The next day, he showed up alive in front of journalists and authorities revealed it all had been a ruse and the organizer of the planned assassination had been arrested.
A Kiev court granted a request by prosecutors on Thursday to detain the suspect, Boris German, the co-owner of a weapons manufacturer, for two months.
Herman denied there was ever any intent to kill Babchenko. He told the court he had been contacted by someone close to the Kremlin about plans to kill Babchenko but he instead turned this information over to the Ukrainian authorities and worked on counterintelligence operations with them.
Prosecutors said they had evidence that Herman had handed over $15,000 to pay someone to kill Babchenko.
At a news conference, Babchenko himself wasn’t clear on why the security services thought the elaborate deception was necessary. “They probably had their reasons. Maybe they wanted to collect proof that would be 100 percent solid,” he said.
One of Russia’s best-known war reporters and a vehement Kremlin critic, the 41-year-old Babchenko fled the country in February 2017 because of what he described as death threats.
He said Ukrainian agents came to him about a month ago and told him Russian security services had put out an order for his slaying.
To make the staged murder look genuine, Babchenko said, security officers took his sweatshirt and shot holes in it. He put on the shirt and got smeared with pig’s blood. “I took a mouthful of it and spit it out,” he said.
One of the officers also told him how to fall down to appear to have been genuinely shot.
His wife called an ambulance and he was taken to a hospital intensive care unit, where a forensic expert “documented” his death. After that, he ended up in a morgue that he said was “freezing as hell.”
Once inside the morgue, Babchenko was “resurrected,” taking off the blood-stained clothes. “I just sat there watching the news about what a great guy I was,” he added.
Babchenko said Thursday he had told his “closest relatives” about the sting operation in advance, although on Wednesday, he apologized to his wife “for the hell she had to go through in the past two days.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry denounced the Ukrainian government, saying it was “fanning anti-Russian hysteria.” Relations between the two countries have been strained since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. Separatists in eastern Ukraine, backed by Mosco,w have fought government troops in a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people.
Babchenko’s faked death caused real shock in Ukraine, where other journalists have been killed in recent years.
It also brought widespread criticism from press freedom groups.
Sergei Tomilenko, head of the Ukrainian Journalists Union, complained that authorities had presented no evidence that an assassination plot actually existed or that Russia was involved. Without such evidence, he said, the deception could be considered politically motivated, “which discredits not only journalists, but the image of Ukraine.”
Added Pauline Ades-Mevel of the group Reporters Without Borders: “We condemn the use of these means to protect journalists.”
But Interior Minister Arsen Avakov lashed out at the criticism.
“What would you want? That Babchenko had been killed?” he said.
Babchenko said he is staying in a secure location for the time being and his immediate plans are to try to overcome the stress he’s endured.
“I’m planning to have a good sleep, get drunk and fall asleep while drunk and think about nothing for the next two or three days,” he said.
On Wednesday, when Babchenko’s stunning appearance in front of journalists brought whoops and applause, Ukrainian Security Service chief Vasyl Gritsak said a Ukrainian citizen who allegedly was paid $40,000 by the Russian security service to organize and carry out the hit had been arrested. The man in turn allegedly hired an acquaintance to be the gunman.