Ukrainian opera director freed in Italy hits out at Russia’s misuse of Interpol
Yevhen Lavrenchuk was imprisoned for more than two month after being detained at Moscow’s request
A Ukrainian opera director who was arrested in Italy at Russia’s request has said he hopes to be “the last ever victim of Russian exploitation of Interpol”.
Yevhen (Eugene) Lavrenchuk, 39, was imprisoned in Naples for more than two months after Russia issued a call for his arrest through Interpol’s “red notice”, an instrument once used to hunt fugitive criminals but which now includes the names of political dissidents.
Lavrenchuk’s name was later removed from the most-wanted list, with the global police agency telling Russian and Italian authorities in early January that his inclusion was inconsistent with an article in its statute that forbids “any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character”.
Russia responded by attempting to secure his arrest and extradition from Italy independently of Interpol, claiming Lavrenchuk had committed financial crimes 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. He said the allegations against him were “completely false” and that he was being persecuted by Russia for publicly voicing his dissent.
Naples’ court of appeal last week released Lavrenchuk at the request of the Italian justice minister, Marta Cartabia, who said that “in consideration of the dramatic developments concerning Ukraine” Lavrenchuk could be subjected to “treatment contrary to his fundamental rights” if extradited to Russia, owing to the fact that he is Ukrainian and opposed to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
A hearing is due to take place on 17 March at which Lavrenchuk is expected to be informed that the extradition attempt has been rejected.
Lavrenchuk, who was held at Poggioreale prison before being transferred to house arrest, is free to leave Italy but wants to stay for the judicial conclusion.
“I’m grateful to Marta Cartabia for asking for my release,” he told the Guardian. “She wrote that I needed to be freed immediately because of the war, because I’m Ukrainian and because I opposed Putin – but I don’t want to speculate on the war, I want to be free, not because I’m Ukrainian but because I’m innocent.”
Lavrenchuk said he did not know he was being hunted by Russia until his arrest on 17 December at a hotel in Naples. He was forced to stay in the city on his journey between Tel Aviv, where his sister lives, and his home city of Lviv in Ukraine, after missing his flight from Capodichino airport due to being held up at customs.
“They took my passport, I didn’t understand why, but they eventually gave it back and I was told I could go, but by that time I was too late for the flight and there wasn’t another one to Lviv for two day,” he said. “So I booked a hotel in Naples and was happy as I had some downtime that wasn’t planned.”
Lavrenchuk, who had posted a picture of his Tel Aviv-Naples boarding pass on Facebook, was arrested the next day. “It came as a total shock,” he said. “I’ve been very open and never ran away from reality. Russia has been looking for me since 2020, but I have travelled a lot and never had any problems at borders.”
Russia’s accusations against Lavrenchuk date back eight years, to when he allegedly defrauded one of his students by asking for money to pay for repairs to the Polish theatre.
Lavrenchuk had lived in Moscow since 2000 but said that after 2014 the country had become “a grey zone in my mind”. He said he spoke out against Putin’s regime and claimed the persecution against him led to him being beaten up outside the Odesa opera and ballet theatre, where he was director, in December 2020.
Misuse of Interpol’s red notices by authoritarian regimes seeking revenge against opponents has been well documented by legal experts, human rights groups and in reports from the US Congress and the European parliament.
“There has been a lot of debate about the abuse of Interpol by Russia,” said Alfonso Tatarano, Lavrenchuk’s lawyer.
Lavrenchuk said he had no hard feelings against Italy for his arrest, as the country was simply “respecting international conventions”, but he has called for the international community to exclude Russia from the Interpol system. “Russia exploits this instrument against anyone who is unsympathetic towards it, compromising the whole Interpol system. I am not the first victim of it, but I dream about being the last.”
Lavrenchuk said he spoke to his parents, who live in Lviv, in western Ukraine close to the border with Poland, every hour. “It is quite peaceful there right now, but that could change quickly … this period has been crazy, the war, the arrest.” He would like to return to Ukraine after next week’s hearing “by whatever means”, he said. “But not to fight, I could never kill anyone, but maybe I could be helpful in other ways.”