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13 August, 2015  ▪  Stanislav Kozliuk

Hostages of the Kremlin

President Poroshenko says there are 30 Ukrainian citizens currently being illegally held in Russia. Human rights advocates that they know about the situation with 11, most of whom the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has yet to provide with lawyers

A wave of arrests

The wave of politically-motivated arrests of Ukrainians began almost immediately after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. One of the leaders of UNA-UNSO, Mykola Karpiuk, was arrested in March, film director Oleh Sentsov in May, and pilot Nadia Savchenko in June, accused variously of organizing criminal gangs, terrorism and mass murder. But there have been far less high-profile incidents as well, often involving very ordinary individuals. The arrests of Artem Hordienko, Vitaliy Kryvosheyev and Kyrylo Pylypenko were gleefully reported in Russian media in April 2014, which called the four men “spies” and “terrorists” who were supposedly preparing to blow up places in Russian cities. Altogether, 25 such individuals have been written about. In time, however, it turned out that these “dangerous criminals” were ordinary migrant workers who were eventually deported from the Russian Federation, according to Ukrainian press reports.

In most cases, the people were originally arrested under the popular soviet heading of “hooliganism.” But then these supposed hooligans found themselves being interrogated by FSB officials who were very curious about the Euromaidan and Praviy Sektor. Stories like this, and on a similar scale, can be heard from Russian human rights advocates during the time of the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, when a similar campaign against Georgians was rolled out.

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“For a long time after being arrested, the Ukrainian consul and lawyers are prevented from visiting the individual being detained,” explains Maria Tomak, a journalist with the Center for Civil Freedom. “In short, the most basic rules that the justice system should be respecting are completely ignored. For instance, a Ukrainian citizen by the name of Yuriy Soloshenko.[1] He was arrested in the center of Moscow when he arrived there on a business trip. Eventually, he found himself in the infamous Lefortovo prison. From the very start, he was accused of industrial espionage, but the case has since been requalified as regular espionage. He’s been imprisoned in Russia for nearly half a year now and not once has the consul been allowed to see him.”

Tomak adds that very often in these cases, the families don’t want to publicize any information as they keep hoping that their silence will favor a positive outcome. “Of course, we try to explain to them that it’s highly unlikely that their silence will result in any concessions if the aggressor country decides to capture their relative or friend,” she says. “However, if people don’t want to talk about this subject, we don’t pressure them.”

On May 13, Savchenko’s lawyer Mark Faigin announced that some 30 Ukrainian citizens are currently imprisoned in Russia. Shortly after that, President Poroshenko mentioned the same figure. Euromaidan SOS, an advocacy group, points out that the State Security Bureau (SBU) promised to provide a list of names to confirm this information, but two weeks after the meeting, there is still no list of prisoners.

Looking for scapegoats in Ukraine

Not all those being held can boast heroic tales. There are those who agree to collaborate with the agencies holding them and to sign any statements demanded of them. For instance, there’s the case of Serhiy Lytvynov. Russian propaganda claimed that he was a member of the Dnipro voluntary battalion, but it became known that Lytvynov was actually from the village of Komyshne in Stanytsia-Luhanska County and had never joined up because he was sick. Prior to being arrested, which took place last August in Russia he was working as a commercial assistant to a private business owner. He’s now implicated in what has been called “the Great Ukrainian Affair,” a slew of cases in which the detainees are being accused of mass murder and using prohibited methods of warfare, the most famous of whom is Nadia Savchenko.

Lytvynov has already signed a confession admitting to murder and rape. In addition, he supposedly told how Ihor Kolomoyskiy personally brought money to the Dnipro battalion and issued “criminal orders.” “We have to point out that Lytvynov is a fairly controversial figure,” says Tomak. “Right now, it’s not even clear how he ended up in Russia in the first place, this ordinary villager without even a high-school diploma. If you read the official transcripts of the interrogations, you can see that his supposedly dozens of rapes are described in one and the same manner. It’s obvious that these ‘confessions’ were written in certain offices.

“We can also assume that he agreed to collaborate with the agencies in exchange for something he was promised. There is information that his brother was a displaced person who supposedly moved to Russia. In short, it’s hardly a heroic story. But what’s important is something else. People are being used by Russia to serve its own purposes, in order for this criminal case to have some story.” She adds that there could well be more people incriminated in this particular case, although it’s hard to name even an approximate number.

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In addition to this “Great Ukrainian Affair,” in the Russian Federation, there is also a “Caucassian Affair.” This involves Karpiuk and Stanyslav Klykh, who was arrested in August 2014. After 10 months of captivity, it’s still not clear where these men are being held. So far, neither consul nor lawyers have been able to see them. When it comes to Karpiuk, he has been turned into a one-man horror show of everything imaginable and unimaginable that terrifies ordinary Russians: he belongs to Praviy Sektor and he was involved in the war in Abkhazia and Transnistria. Now he’s being accused of participating in the Chechen war.

“Yes, UNSO men were fighting in Chechnya, but Karpiuk was not among them,” says Tomak. “The thing is, the Kremlin needs to try people on a territorial basis. It can’t really try Karpiuk based on actions taken outside the territory of Russia! So he has to be incriminated for setting up criminal gangs. And the same thing is being done with Klykh, although his situation is worse. Karpiuk’s family kept getting letters, albeit weird ones, but nothing at all is known about Klykh. We think that he is being held in Vladykavkaz, but we need to find him. The main defendants in this Caucasian case are Dmytro Yarosh (leader of Pravyi Sektor – Ed.) and Oleksandr Muzychko (Ukrainian nationalist who fought in the First Chechen War, coordinator of Pravyi Sektor in Western Ukraine, killed in March 2014 – Ed.) and, as with the Ukrainian affair, there could be others involved about whom we know nothing.”

In addition to Ukrainians, the Kremlin’s list of captives includes Russian citizens as well. There have been cases when the Russian Federation has accused its own citizens of spying on behalf of Ukraine. In fact, they are being accused of treason, which is a far worse crime than something like spying. A classic example of this is the story of Sergei Rudniev. He is a Russian citizen who had residency in Ukraine and had lived in Dnipropetrovsk for 12 years. When one of his friends, a Cyborg,[2] was taken into captivity by the militants, Rudniev went with two volunteers to negotiate his release. The “insurgents” promptly arrested all three of them, after which Rudniev ended up to the Tikhoretski Prison in Krasnodarskiy Krai in Russia. He was accused of illegally crossing the border, i.e., a Russian citizen apparently illegally crossed the border into his own country, and of possession of weapons. Later on, he was released under an amnesty deal.

SOS-ing the Foreign Ministry

Human rights advocates from Euromaidan SOS note that right now there are two important questions regarding Russia’s prisoners that need answering. Firstly, there are rumors that Ukrainian soldiers are being kept as slaves in Chechnya. It’s not clear who has taken them captive and where they are being held. They could just as easily be sitting somewhere in a jail.

The second question, or rather problem is the fact that in a year of war and captivity, Ukraine still has not managed to allocate money to its political prisoners for defense lawyers.

“Lawyers perform a critical function,” explains Tomak. “They ensure that there is contact between the person and the rest of the world. There are examples when the ‘free’ lawyers provided by the RF to captives simply worked on breaking them down. They would do everything to convince the captives that the consul simply didn’t feel like coming to see them and that their country had turned its back on them.” For instance, in the case of a recently-released student from Lviv, Yuriy Yatsenko, the lawyer was paid for by Freedom House and a Czech humanitarian organization called “People in Trouble.”

“We held a briefing in the Verkhovna Rada and called on the factions to take the bull by the horns and pay for lawyers, establish contact with families and help captives financially without any intermediaries,” says Tomak angrily. “Savchenko is being cared for by her party, yes, but others have simply been abandoned. This is crazy. We still have a war here yet the people held captive by the aggressor country cannot get any financial support. Of course, all this ends up on the hands of NGOs. But international human rights organizations have their own priorities, and right now that means Sentsov and Savchenko.”

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The only excuse the Foreign Ministry offers is that there simply aren’t any items in the budget that allow such expenditures as lawyers’ fees, whose services, in the case of the Russian Federation, cost a considerable amount. Lawyers who take up politically-motivated cases are particularly costly. To fix the situation, the Rada only needs to make a few amendments—but so far it hasn’t. And so Ukraine’s unacknowledged prisoners of war can only wait and pray.


[1] A pensioner who was the general manager of the Znam’ya Factory in Poltava for 20 years

[2] “Cyborg” is the name given to the men who fought to defend Donetsk International Airport for 242 days before finally being defeated by Russian proxies

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