Arrest of the Ukrainian scholar Dmytro Shtyblikov in Russian-occupied Sevastopol, November 2016. Screenshot from an FSB “operative video”
“Not a single Ukrainian citizen has suffered here [since 2014], there are absolutely no restrictions, and the attitude [to them] is just friendly”: that is how the Kremlin-installed head of Crimea Sergey Aksyonov is trying to lure tourists from mainland Ukraine to the occupied peninsula this summer. These sweet lies, however, have nothing to do with reality. People with Ukrainian passports, both coming to Crimea and residing there permanently, are at risk of being arrested, accused of absurd crimes, and forced to “confess” by means of barbaric torture, as the the invented “Crimean saboteurs” plot proves.
The key feature of the so-called “saboteurs case” is that Moscow directly blames the Ukrainian government for preparing anti-Russian violent actions in Crimea. A number of other cases fabricated against Ukrainians from the #LetMyPeopleGo list serve to demonize particular organizations, such as the Right Sector or Hizb ut-Tahrir, or target individual Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian activists, or, at the very outside, “expose” the alleged transfer of the classified information across the border. The “saboteurs case,” in contrast, is designed to persuade Russians, Crimeans, and the West that Ukraine as a state allegedly uses its military to harm Russia and engender the civilians whom the Kremlin forcibly made its subjects in March 2014.
Amid the narrative that turned Russia from an aggressor state into a defending party, the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) has incriminated “sabotage” to at least nine Ukrainian citizens. The first accused were the drivers Yevhen Panov, Andriy Zakhtey and Volodymyr Prysych and the builder Ridvan Suleymanov. Their capture in the territory of Crimea in August 2016 clearly aimed to compromise Kyiv on the eve of the Ukraine-Russia Donbas peace talks at the G20 summit. Russian propaganda also used the occasion to glorify the role of Putin the Savior of Crimea, who arrived at the scene to discuss the “measures to protect the peninsula and its residents” from Ukrainian “terrorists.”
Read more: Putin’s Crimean miscalculation
The trump card of the Kremlin propaganda was the death of two Russian security officers in north Crimea, which was immediately explained by mysterious Ukrainian bullets. Ten months passed; the Ukrainian prisoners survived horrendous torture, “confessed” to planning sabotage and then renounced their testimonies, but nobody was indicted for firing fatal shots. It is likely that the shots did take place but the bullets were Russian. Poor coordination among the members of Russian security could cost life to the infelicitous officers, who were promptly converted to the mythical martyrs of “Russian Crimea.”
The ordeal of the Ukrainian hostage Volodymyr Prysych from Kharkiv demonstrates both the cruelty of the Kremlin’s punitive system and the readiness of Russian judiciary to patch the holes left by the investigation. In August 2016, Russian television broadcasted Prysych’s “confession” of espionage and called him a member of a Ukrainian “saboteur group.” Later he would tell the court how the FSB interrogation looked like: each question was accompanied by electric shock, and then he was asked to think over the answer. His trial ended on 18 May 2017 but, strikingly, the resolutive part of the verdict does not say a word about “sabotage” or “spying.” Prysych got three years in jail under Article 228 of the Russian Criminal Code, “Illegal acquisition, storage, transportation, production, and processing of narcotics,” as if the FSB had never released its infamous TV thriller.
One can learn what the aforementioned “measures to protect the peninsula and its residents” mean in practice from the complaint of the prisoner Yevhen Panov to the Investigative Committee of Russia, where he describes the torture he was subject to for six days:
“They beat me with an iron pipe in the head, back, kidneys, arms, and legs; they tightened handcuffs from behind until my hands became numb; they hang me up by handcuffs: my knees were bent, the handcuffs were fastened slightly below the knees, an iron stick was inserted under the knees, and then two men took it from both sides and lifted this stick with me, which caused wild pain.”
In November 2016, other five Ukrainian citizens Dmytro Shtyblikov, Oleksiy Bessarabov, Volodymyr Dudka, Oleksiy Stohniy, and Glib Shabliy were arrested in the same case. All of them were permanent residents of Crimea. The occupation authorities did not invent anything new and accused them of preparing subversive activities at the military and life support facilities on the instructions of the Ukrainian military intelligence. FSB officers supplemented the “saboteurs case” not only with new prisoners but also with ridiculous pieces of evidence such as a “Right Sector business card,” which had been a symbol of Russian fake news since 2014, or airsoft guns passed off as “real” weapons.
Reserve captain of the Ukrainian navy Volodymyr Dudka was arrested in the Crimean city of Sevastopol on his way to a hospital. Dudka suffers from gastric ulcer and his health worsened behind bars, but the staff of the Simferopol remand jail denied him (and other prisoners alike) medical aid. Only after a month-long delay did Dudka receive necessary medical supplies bought by his relatives.
Until the annexation of Crimea by Russia, Dmytro Shtyblikov and Oleksiy Bessarabov worked together as military analysts and deputy chief editors of the journal Black Sea Regional Security. Back in 2008, Shtyblikov published the farseeing article “Russian-Georgian conflict: Is Ukraine next?” That text could have made him many enemies, his colleagues suggest.
Shtyblikov’s friend Oleksandr Nosov commented upon his arrest in November 2016:
“This ‘detective story’ is an absolute stupidity for normal people, but it is logical for an FSB officer who concocted all that. If he [Shtyblikov] served Ukraine earlier, ten years ago, he is a ‘saboteur.’ If he previously served but then, after the annexation, he decided to remain in the occupied territory, in the land of his ancestors and his children, therefore he allegedly had to go to their punitive organs and report all that he knew. [… Otherwise] they would catch you when they don’t have another real ‘fish’ and ascribe to you everything they want.”
To this day, no independent lawyer has been admitted to Shtyblikov in jail. Moreover, the appointed lawyer tried to prevent the prisoner’s relatives from attending the court session on 2 May 2017, where they could have the only opportunity to see him. A month ago, it became known that Shtyblikov had concluded an agreement with Russian investigative authorities. This implies his acknowledgment of the imputed “guilt” and exempts the court from examining the pertinent evidence.
“The paradox and irony of fate,” notes Pavlo Lakiichuk, former colleague of Bessarabov and Shtyblikov, “is that the authors of numerous publications and analytical materials aiming at consolidating the international community in the fight against terrorist threat are accused of terrorism by the regime that, in the words of the late Alexander Litvinenko, blew up Russia.”
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