25 Ukrainians are held in captivity by the Russians, accused of committing serious crimes. Yet international rights organizations still have not recognized them as political prisoners
Initially, Russia needed to show “banderites” from Crimea, and so we saw the cases of Mykola Karpiuk and Oleh Sentsov. As one of the leaders of both UNA-UNSO and Praviy Sektor, Karpiuk was the personification of Russian propaganda. And when the conflict started in Eastern Ukraine, Russian propaganda needed someone to portray as karateli – the military punishers, a Russian propaganda name Ukrainian military or volunteers. So the Nadiya Savchenko case emerged. The persecution of Ukrainians rolled out in various areas simultaneously, including espionage. One such case was the story of Yuriy Soloshenko. He is currently the oldest of all the Ukrainians being held for political reasons in Russia: his 73rd birthday took place in a jail. He had been arrested at the Kyiv Vokzal in Moscow in 2014 while he was on a business trip.
The Crimean Tatars are another component in this picture. In 2015, the self-proclaimed Sergei Aksionov government decided to start persecuting activists for their religious views. For instance, in January, they arrested three men who were supposed members of a pan-Islamic organization called Hizb ut-Tahrir. Ruslan Zeitulayev, Nuri Primov and Rustem Vaitov were accused of founding this organization and participating in it. This organization is apparently banned in the Russian Federation for being “extremist,” although Western countries do not consider it as such. The defense lawyer noted that during a search of their homes, no evidence was found linking these men Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Earlier, TheUkrainian Week wrote about 11 Ukrainians held captive in the Russian Federation for political reasons, but that number has since grown to 25, according to the Center for Civil Liberties, a human rights NGO. In more than 18 months, only two have successfully been released. And the original two “big cases” against Ukrainians have expanded to many more.
The first and most familiar “big Ukrainian case” includes Ukrainians who are accused of being part of the “punitive battalions,” mass killings and illegal methods of warfare. This “category” included pilot Nadiya Savchenko and Serhiy Lytvynov. Their histories and the way in which they were captured were radically different. Savchenko was taken captive near the village of Metalist in Luhansk Oblast on June 17, 2014, serving as a volunteer with the Aidar Battalion. Aged 33 at that point, she had the rank of senior lieutenant and served in the Ukrainian Army for 10 years. For seven days, she was held prisoner, and then taken over the border into Russia illegally. From the very start, she was accused of being involved in the deaths of two Russian journalists, Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshyn, who came under fire that same day outside the city of Luhansk. In the end, she was accused of being an accessory to murder and an accessory in attempted murder carried out through political hatred. She was also accused of illegally crossing the Russian border and recently sentenced to 22 years.
The story of Lytvynov is somewhat different. A resident of Stanychno-Luhansk County, he had only a grade 7 education and worked as a handy-man for a local company. According to others in his village, he was mentally underdeveloped, which had exempted him from military service. On August 12, 2014, he went to the hospital in Rostov Oblast, Russia, to a dentist, because armed conflict had rendered the clinics on the Ukrainian side inoperable by then. On August 21, unknown individuals took him to the local anti-crime department and by August 29, he was being accused of “genocide against the Russian-speaking population of southeastern Ukraine.” According to investigators, the handy-man had killed 39 men and one girl, and had raped and killed 8 women. Supposedly he had committed all these crimes as a volunteer in the Dnipro-1 Battalion on orders from the commanders, directly from Ihor Kolomoyskiy.
Still, thanks to the efforts of his lawyer, Viktor Parshutkin, and the Ukrainian consul, this case collapsed. It turned out that the names of the supposed victims and their addresses were fictitious and Lytvynov himself offered very confused testimony. As a result, the detectives decided not to take the case to court. Instead, they launched a new case, according to which the resident of Luhansk Oblast was accused of robbing a Russian citizen. Supposedly he and his fellow Ukrainian soldiers attacked a resident of Rostov Oblast who had a house in Ukraine, beat him up, and stole two cars. For this, he was supposed to be sentenced to 12 years in prison. Once again, though, the plates on one of the “stolen” cars had been removed from circulation while the second one was reported as stolen. Moreover, the supposed victim had last been seen in Ukraine at the end of 2013. Today, the court case continues.
Nevertheless, the story so far gives cause for cautious optimism, given that Lytvynov is possibly the only Ukrainian who has a real chance of going home because of obvious doubts about the evidence.
The Chechen connection
The second and no less important “big Caucasus affair” is linked to Ukrainians who “participated” in the Chechen wars, in particular the First Chechen War. The most famous figures in this case are Stanislav Klykh and Mykola Karpiuk. They are accused of supposedly killing Russian soldiers and of being actively engaged in armed conflict on the territory of the presidential palace, Minutka Square and the train station in Grozny. Investigators are claiming that the Ukrainians, together with accomplices, managed to kill 30 soldiers and wound another 13. Karpiuk was arrested in March 2014 in Briansk Oblast, while Klykh was arrested in Orel in August 2014, when he was on a trip to see his girlfriend. Karpiuk was supposedly traveling to Moscow on behalf of Praviy Sektor to meet with “Russian leadership.” On March 20, Karpiuk was accused of participating in events in Chechnya.
The entire case hinges on the testimony of just one person, Aleksandr Malofeyev, who, according to the investigation, was also involved in clashes with Russian forces in Chechnya. After returning to Ukraine, he allegedly committed a number of robberies and was incarcerated. Once released, he moved in with his mother in Novosybirsk Oblast. And once he got there, he was sentenced to another 23 years for new crimes.
Defense attorney Maryna Dubovina suspects that Malofeyev has been pressured because he’s also a drug addict. That’s quite likely why this “witness” stated that the former leader of Praviy Sektor Dmytro Yarosh, Oleh and Andriy Tiahnybok, the leaders of Svoboda, and even PM Arseniy Yatseniuk participated in the Chechen war. Human rights advocates say that transcripts of the interrogations involving Malofeyev began to appear in the case only in 2014, just around the time Klykh and Karpiuk were arrested. Prior to this, the surnames of the Ukrainian detainees had never come up, although the case had been under consideration since 1997. Another point that suggests that the evidence against them has been fabricated is that none of the members of UNA-UNSO recognized Malofeyev as a member of their movement. Klykh and Karpiuk themselves note that they could not have physically been in Chechnya in 1994-1995 because Stanislav was studying at Shevchenko University in Kyiv while Mykola was taking care of his ailing mother.
After independent lawyers joined the case, Klykh and Karpiuk reported that they had been tortured with water hoses, choked, beaten, deprived of sleep, water and food, and subjected to psychotropic substances. After one such session of abuse, Mykola tried to kill himself, but the guards stopped him. Both captives wrote statements about the torture and abuse to the ECHR. At the moment, the case continues in Grozny and the men could face between 15 years and life behind bars.
Spies and extremists
The third category is a relatively new one: espionage. At least three Ukrainians are being held, the best-known of them being Yuriy Soloshenko. He worked for 20 years in the military and managed the Znamia, a special-purpose R&D factory in Poltava that had been a secret object in the Soviet times. After the USSR collapsed, this plant survived on Russian defense orders, but in 2010 the company closed down and Soloshenko retired. He continued to stay in contact with his former business partners.
After he’d been held for 10 months, the consul tried to get to see him, but his request was refused. During the investigation, Soloshenko insisted that he was innocent and even wrote letters to the Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika and pleas for clemency to Vladimir Putin himself. Still, in court he pleaded guilty and announced that he would not appeal the verdict. He was sentenced to six years in prison.
The fourth and probably largest group of cases is the Crimeans. They, too, can be divided into subgroups: political and religious cases. The first includes Sentsov, Kolchenko, Afanasiyev and Cherniy, who were are all accused of terrorism and acts of terror, and have been sentenced to prison for 7 to 20 years. The second is the Hizb ut-Tahrir case, which came up relatively recently, not quite a year ago. The Center for Civil Liberties notes that any Crimean Tatars who seriously observe their religion and traditions can be taken to court, and human rights advocates suspect that this will become a standard procedure on the occupied peninsula in the future. Both Sevastopol and Simferopol law enforcers have become very interested in “religion.” For instance, a Simferopol court recently had four Crimean Tatars arrested after their homes were searched on February 12.
“Most likely that, while Crimea was still part of Ukraine, there were some lists of people to keep an eye on, and clearly these lists are now being used,” says Maria Tomak, a journalist from the Center for Civil Liberties. “As far as we can tell, the FSB have been setting up these cases against activists with whom they had dealt while they were still part of the SBU. But these religious cases are a general trend in Russia today. There, people have been getting arrested since the early 2000s. People are grabbed by the dozen, but we just haven’t seen that kind of thing in Ukraine. Right now, 20 Muslims have been detained in Ufa, and another 20 in Moscow. And this repressive Russian ‘conveyor’ has already begun to make itself felt in Crimea as well, partly because of the particular context here, the determination to squeeze the Crimean Tatars, to let them know who’s boss.”
The lucky few unlucky ones
Over the last two years, only two Ukrainians have been lucky enough to come back to Ukraine from Russian prisons: students Bohdan Yarychevskiy and Yuriy Yatsenko. The boys were originally detained in Kursk Oblast, after which they were tortured and forced to confess that they were involved in espionage and sabotage. To get away from the FSB, in the end they both tried to slash their veins. After a few months, Yarychevskiy was finally released to go home, while Yatsenko was ultimately sentenced to two years in a high security prison for possession of 40 gm of hunting powder, which is considered a crime under Russian law. The decision of the lower court was successfully appealed and the term was reduced to 9 months, including the months spent in pre-trial detention.
Ukraine can expect a series of final decisions regarding other prisoners very soon. Hopefully, say advocates, a decision will be made in the more optimistic case of Lytvynov by mid-April. With Klykh and Karpiuk, possibly by the end of April, as all that is left there is the presentation for the defense, deliberation and sentencing. With the Crimean Tatars, the situation is much more complicated. One way or another, the “terrorists” detained in Crimea will have to be transferred to Russia, which is when the process will start. It’s not even clear when that might happen.
As to the chances of exchanging captive Ukrainians, rights advocates shrug their shoulders. Where the situation with Savchenko, Sentsov and Klykh is pretty obvious, it’s not clear what can be done with the Tatars. They want to return to their homes in the peninsula but that’s where they can get arrested again. “Crimean Tatar Ali Asanov has four children and a huge family, and they’re farmers,” says Tomak. “His elderly parents risked their lives to return to Crimea. And they say that the only way they will leave it now is feet first. Or else deported. So how can you exchange these people? Under what terms? The entire family needs to be taken away and settled in mainland Ukraine, but it’s unlikely that the government will take something like this on. Yet there’s no way to guarantee their safety in Crimea. Especially given the risk of mass repressions if they ban the Medjlis. This is a huge threat for Crimean Tatars.”
Political prisoners or not?
The only organization that has so far recognized Ukrainian prisoners is the Russian human rights organization Memorial. No international organization has come up with a similar initiative. As Ukrainian human rights advocates point out, the term “political prisoner” means that the person was a journalist, rights activist or engaged in non-violent resistance. For instance, even Amnesty International won’t declare filmmaker Sentsov a political prisoner, as they aren’t entirely convinced that he did not resort to violence. The Savchenko case isn’t even worth bringing up with AI because she’s a servicewoman. Still, AI demanded proportionality in qualifying their actions. For instance, in the case of Afanasiyev, who set fire to the door of the Russkoye Yedinstvo, a chauvinist pro-Russian organization in Crimea, the action could be qualified as hooliganism, not terrorism, as this is what it qualifies as under the Russian law. What’s more Amnesty issued a number of statements regarding the use of torture against Ukrainian prisoners in the RF.
Resolutions regarding Ukrainian prisoners have also been issued by the European Parliament, the Polish Sejm, and Czech MPs. The next session of PACE is also expected to vote on a resolution regarding this issue.
When it comes to the chances of an exchange, the situation is not clear at all. At one point, Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice turned to its Russian counterpart with a request to allow Sentsov, Kolchenko, Afanasiyev and Soloshenko to carry out their prison terms in their homeland. There could have been more names on that list, but everything is complicated by bureaucratic procedures, because, in fact, both the prisoners and their relatives have to submit an appeal for effective extradition. Given that this is a legal resolution of the situation, those Ukrainians will have to serve their sentences, only back in Ukraine, and only a court of law will have the right to set them free. This means that Ukraine effectively acknowledges the sentence handed down by a Russian court.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry is also looking into the option of exchanging Ukrainians through clemency. FM Pavlo Klimkin has even promised to raise this issue during the next session of the Normandy group. It’s hard to say, however, how seriously this issue will be taken.
“People who are involved in exchanges at the level of the LNR and DNR and say that they can arrange the exchange of Nadiya or Sentsov are simply not serious,” says Tomak. “This kind of exchange can only happen at the highest level, the Presidential Administration. Even the SBU is not involved in this kind of thing. Their remit is those captured by LNR and DNR, and assistance with collecting testimony about the Kremlin’s prisoners. The Foreign Ministry and Administration are the ones who handle negotiations.”