On 7 September 2019, 35 Ukrainians returned home from Russian prisons. Among them were the 24 sailors whom Russia illegally captured after attacking them in the Black Sea in November 2018. The case has been widely covered in Ukrainian and international media. Most of the names of the other 11 political prisoners were also more or less known publicly. Unlike the 86 Ukrainian political prisoners still remaining in Russian prisons.
- Read more: 35 Ukrainian hostages of the Kremlin, including Oleg Sentsov, finally home. 86 still remain
The stories of the released Ukrainians show that their level of fame influenced the level of cruelty they experienced.
During their first press conference, the two most famous prisoners, Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian filmmaker from Crimea, and left-wing activist Oleksandr Kolchenko accused together with Sentsov, did not want to reveal what they suffered. They said their experience is not worth mentioning compared to what happened to the others.
However, Sentsov did tell the media that he already provided evidence for the Hague Tribunal against Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agents who tortured him.
Beatings, electrocution, intimidation, and other horrors
Among the released Ukrainians there is one who has not talked to the public yet. Stanislav Klykh probably returned in the worst condition among the other ex-prisoners. He was arrested in Russia where he went to visit a girlfriend in August 2014. He was accused of taking part in Russia’s First Chechen War based on incriminating testimonies extracted through beatings, torture, electrocution, and being held incommunicado for 10 months.
In 2015, his lawyer informed on tortures he experienced and told that he lost 15 kilograms and received numerous diseases. Also lawyers noted that Klykh had signs of mental disorder because of tortures or severe stress he suffered. At that time, Klykh and Mykola Karpiuk, who was also groundlessly accused in the same case, had submitted their testimonies to the European Court of Human Rights.
- Read also: Beaten, drugged, electrocuted. Ukrainians tortured into “confessing” of Chechnya crimes in Russia
In May 2016, Klykh was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Since that time, he was kept in the prison of Verkhnyouralsk, Chelyabinsk Oblast. He had launched a hunger strike. According to his mother, he described that he could not stand either the cold in the cell, or the bad food from which he was constantly sick, and, most importantly, oblivion. In under a month, he had to stop the strike because of the threats of the prison management “to place him in one cell with an unfriendly convict.”
After the release, Klykh remains in the hospital. He had suffered severe psychological damage, his co-defendant Mykola Karpiuk told journalists.
“Be careful with him…He is very aggressive…What I’ve gone through is one thing, but if you saw what happens to Stanislav. His knees, arms, elbows are just hewed. The things he suffered…Compared to that, I can even say that I did not suffer torture,” Karpiuk said.
In an interview with ATR, Karpiuk described his gut-wrenching experience in the Russian prison system. .
“Temporary Isolation Ward 1. As soon as it gets dark, they take you into the corridor – handcuffs, hands behind your back, place a plastic bag on your head – and secure it with tape… and take you out. We walk 10-15 minutes, they take you into some building and take you up to the fourth floor.
A clamp to the toe of your right foot, a clamp to the finger of your right hand or other parts of the body – and electric current starts running through your body. With different periods: in jerks, for some time – it is an unpleasant feeling. This is what they did to me.
Then they bring you to the TIW again – the interrogation room, a 1*1 meter metal cage… And they don’t let you sleep during the night, during the day. As soon as I start closing my eyes – the cops change every two hours and say ‘no sleeping, no sleeping …
[Stanislav Klykh]…was brought into the prison cell and tied to the prison bed with bracelets on his arms behind his back. He was placed on his knees and not allowed to move and sleep the whole night.
I did not hear how Klykh was being interrogated, but there is no sound isolation – and I heard many people who were brought out. And the screeching of the duct tape along the whole corridor when they were brought from the torture and placed in the cells. He was groaning and begging: ‘I will sign everything for you, just let me sleep.’
With me it so happened that I was tortured for four nights, and on the fifth there was no torture, but on that night I just passed out because they didn’t let me sleep – I entered a state of delirium, and woke up in my cell.”
Karpiuk told that, apart from torture, the Russian jailers use “psychotropic drugs,” and they used them on himself as well.
“One time I passed out for a day – I don’t know what happened to me then.”
As well, he suspects that the political prisoners could have received implants.
“Stanislav Klykh, when he was still conscious and in a normal psychological state, when we met on 15 September 2016 at the first court hearing in Grozny, showed me the square scar (on the wrist), it was clearly cut out. He said that a chip was implanted there.
I took this extremely seriously, because when the delirium stopped, I was sure that I was chipped. I searched, examined my whole body and then thought that I was hallucinating. But when Stanislav told me he had been chipped, then I understood that the cops were talking about this when I was delirious … I searched for it for a week on my body.”
Karpiuk explained that when an implant is inserted, it influences the nervous system and the “person starts panicking.”
Desire for revenge spurs torturing a person who went against the system
On 16 September, Volodymyr Balukh, a Crimean farmer and activist who sympathized with the Euromaidan Revolution, flew a Ukrainian flag above his house, and set up a plaque commemorating the slain victims of Euromaidan, held a press-conference as well. His lawyer Dmitri Dinze, Olha Skrypnyk, coordinator of the Crimean Human Rights Group, and Archbishop of the Crimean Diocese of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine Klyment joined the event.
During it, a video of the ex-prisoner telling about the torture he underwent in prison was presented to the public for the first time. The lawyers had not made the video public earlier because they were planning to initiate legal measures against the colony.
“Physical violence started from the first seconds I arrived to the colony in the city of Torzhok, Tverskaya Oblast. Here, on the territory of the colony, I was beaten during the ‘reception’…There were many of them, around ten, at least eight. They were beating me from behind, I was standing facing the wall…They threw me so I would split my legs, kicked my legs, the area of my liver, kidneys, at the back of my head. I was facing the wall, stretched out to the extent of intolerable pain…Afterward, they stripped me to the buff, gave me work clothes which you can’t fasten, they told to tuck them into the underwear, trousers. After, they sent me to quarantine. There they said I committed an imaginary violation and sent me to the punishment cell…They said I would need to spend 15 days there because I allegedly did not greet a representative of the administration… Also there were threats of physical violence on every corner.”
Balukh said that before this, he was tortured in Tver prison, where he was brought from the colony in Kerch, Crimea.
“There was severe physical violence, torture with the threat of sexual abuse…There was everything – beatings, a pillowcase put on my head, dousing with water, beatings of all parts of the body – heels, feet, ears. And the threat of sexual abuse when a stun gun is pressed to the anus … This has one purpose – to break a person morally, subjugate, humiliate, make him feel as scum.”
According to the ex-prisoner, he was hit by a stun gun about 150 times.
During the press-conference, the ex-prisoner told that such incidents were happening with the silent approval of the prison doctor. That is why Balukh refused any medical help or observation there Another one of Balukh’s complaints concerned the incessant cold – because of it, he had permanent headaches and joint pains. As told by him, the temperature inside was about +16°C.
Skrypnyk, coordinator of the Crimean Human Rights Group emphasized that the described tortures were not taking place during the investigation stage, when usually the law enforcers try to extort “confessions” of what a person has not done.
“[Balukh’s tortures] were probably related just to a sadistic desire to get revenge by torturing a person who went against the system.”
Dmitry Dinze explained the differences between prisons in Crimea and Russia.
“I think it was no coincidence that he was transferred from the peninsula [to Russia]. The employees [of the prison in Crimea] were saying that Volodymyr was giving them a hard time, all the time demanding something, asking to adhere to the rules etc. It means that employees [of the penitentiary institutions] on the peninsula are still wary of Ukrainian political prisoners. Meanwhile, in central Russia, the situation is off limits… According to the words of all the convicts, the conditions there can be equated to torture… We all understand that such things can happen to a person only with the blessings of the highest law enforcement forces – security services, authorities who oversee such political cases.”
Balukh confirmed that he is going to sue Russia in the European Court of Human Rights.
“I don’t need it for myself that much, because I am already here… However, many of our guys are still there. In particular, there is Oleksandr Shumkov in Torzhok. I understand from the inside what is going on with him, what would happen.”
Skrypnyk in her turn added that most probably the individual complaints would be considered after the interstate complaint of Ukraine against Russia regarding Crimea. The process has already been started.
What it means for prisoners to be publicly known
Dinze added that Balukh’s stance regarding Crimea is especially irritating for Russia.
“Publicity for our defendants means responsibility first of all. Sentsov had his own publicity, Volodymyr had another one, Yevhen Panov a different one. If someone thinks it is good to be publicly known, no, for the system it is way more interesting to break a public person. The system was winning back on Volodymyr and was trying to use his publicity against him. That is why he was sent to the colony in Torzhok with such awful conditions and employees.”
The lawyer told that Balukh did not have such international support as, for example, Sentsov had, which explained why the filmmaker received better treatment.
“In some cases publicity works to help a person. In Balukh’s case, it worked against him. Many employees [of the colony] considered him, as some crazy Ukrainian with his delirious ideas and flags, who could be broken and who would start to dance to their tune. They tried [to break him], but failed,” Dinze said.
Skrypnyk emphasized that even though publicity can have Zaire) different impacts, the fact that there are at least 86 Ukrainians behind bars only in the Crimean cases should be public for everyone.
Other released prisoners also already shared their experience publicly.
A teen kidnapped from Belarus
Pavlo Hryb was placed in Russian prison after being kidnapped from the territory of Belarus in 2017, where he traveled to visit an online girlfriend. Then, he was only 19 years old. Hryb had health problems before. In prison, without proper medical care, his health conditions deteriorated significantly. He has portal hypertension and now requires expensive treatment and surgery abroad. Describing the attitude to him in the Russian Rostov-on-Don prison and the conditions there he says there was nothing extraordinary and the conditions did not violate the law. However, the youngster experienced torture during his detention in Belarus.
“The task force detained me very harshly. They squeezed my arms with clamps. I have a scar from it on my arm. My hands turned completely blue, they were held that way on purpose. The beatings were no big deal. The only thing was that my hands were tingling while we were on the road,” Hryb describes in the interview to the BBC.
The prisoner adds that he was beaten so he would not observe where he was being driven. Still, he says he understood that he was taken to Russia immediately from the road signs. As well, from the very beginning, he understood that it were Russians, not Belarusians who abducted him.
Torture for “confessions”
Yevhen Panov was arrested in early August 2016 together with Andriy Zakhtey and accused of planning terrorist acts and targeting critically important parts of Crimean infrastructure. Later, the FSB shot a video where Panov allegedly confessed to the planned sabotage. Later, during the court hearings, he stated that the testimonies were given under tortures and refuted them on numerous occasions.
“I think other people already said and described it [torture]. I don’t want to repeat and remember it, or to add anything. There was torture. Fullstop. I have no desire to add the details. False testimonies, incomprehensible facts were superimposed on my real story. They need trash. They are not interested in the truth. The things I said on video were written on a paper from which I read out. They said: here, read it, then you’ll retell it. I read it, but did not memorize anything. I started to repeat, and then I say one thing wrong and remember another thing wrong. Eventually I had to write it down and read it out. Maybe I am not the strongest man, but body reserves run out at a certain point,” Panov said.
It was visible on the video that Panov was beaten, he had an abrasion on his face. The ex-prisoner assumes that the Russian law enforcers made a mistake by shooting a video with Panov having visible signs of violence on his face.
Why the clemency procedure was used to release the Ukrainians
Human rights activists note that prison transfers of Ukrainians to Russia also violates international humanitarian law and falls under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.
Dmitry Dinze explained that Russia immediately foisted Russian citizenship on the captured Ukrainians from Crimea to block the work of the Consular Section. Also, according to the lawyer, considering Ukrainian prisoners as Russians made the clemency procedure the only legal way for Russia to free them.
“No other legal mechanism could have been used either for Sentsov or Balukh, as Russia de facto and de jure considered them Russian citizens. They could not have been turned over to Ukraine for serving a sentence. That is why for these people the mechanism of clemency was launched.”
After they returned home, the released Ukrainians told that in prisons they were asked to write a petition for clemency. After some of them refused, representatives of Russian law enforcement forces replied that the signature is just a formality and that the petition would be relevant anyway.
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