Ukrainians are held in 25 prisons in Russia and occupied Crimea. They are tortured and starved — “Babel” spoke to human rights defenders who are looking for people in captivity

Ghanna Mamonova
Tetyana Lohvynenko
Ukrainians are held in 25 prisons in Russia and occupied Crimea. They are tortured and starved — “Babel” spoke to human rights defenders who are looking for people in captivity

Ferrum Alien / Кateryna Bandus / «Бабель»

From Taganrog to the Vladimir Central, from Kursk to Yeniseysk — Russian prisons are full of Ukrainian prisoners. Among them are both military and civilians. In September, Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories, reported that 2,500 Ukrainians were in Russian captivity. How many civilians are among them is unknown. Specialists of the Center for Civil Liberties Mykhailo Savva (doctor of political sciences, professor, member of the expert council) and Nataliya Yashchuk (coordinator of national projects) are looking for Ukrainians who were captured by the Russian military in the occupied territories and taken to Russia. "Babel" journalist asked them about the 25 prisons where Ukrainians are held, the torture and abuse that takes place there, and about the first letters from the abductees to their families.

In which pre-trial detention centers and colonies do the Russians keep Ukrainian prisoners?

Savva: Since 2014, the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL) has been dealing with Ukrainian civilians who were abducted from the occupied territories and are being held in Russia, despite the International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. CCL documents enforced disappearances, works with families of the victims, and keeps a database.

Prisoners of war and civilian Ukrainians are kept together. In the same colonies or pre-trial detention centers are also Russian citizens who have been convicted or are awaiting sentence, but Ukrainians have been isolated from them — they are kept in separate sectors or buildings, with guards and barbed wire.

Ukrainians are not guarded by the employees of the Russian Federal Penal Service, but by the military police of the Ministry of Defense of Russia. This is a sign for us: if it works in the pre-trial detention center, then there are Ukrainians there.

Yashchuk: We send letters to the prison from our list. We ask about a specific person, whether he or she is there. Itʼs important to do this, even if you receive a reply: “No, there is no such person.” Later, if a person is tried to be accused of something, we can appeal: “You said that you didnʼt have such person, but it turns out that you hid him or her."

Residents of the Kyiv region, who were abducted during the occupation and released during exchanges, said that they were taken to Belarus to a military camp. Does it still exist?

Yashchuk: One camp for prisoners of war is known — in the Gomel region, in the city of Narovlya. The camp was active in the spring. Whether it exists now, after the de-occupation of the northern regions of Ukraine, is unknown.

From there, people were taken to Russian prisons. Part of the civilian prisoners passed through Narovlya, part through the POW camp in Russian Hlushkovo.

Where are prisoners held in the occupied territories of Ukraine?

Yashchuk: Before the liberation of Kherson, people were kept in the former premises of the regional police in the commandantʼs office. They were detained, tortured, and encouraged to cooperate with the occupation authorities.

In the Donetsk region, these are colonies in Olenivka, Makiivka and Kalynynska colony in Horlivka. In the Luhansk region, there is a pre-trial detention center in Starobilsk and the colony No. 36 in Sukhodilsk. People are sent from these colonies to Russia.

According to Iryna Vereshchuk, 2,500 Ukrainians remain in captivity. How many of them are civilians?

Yashchuk: It isnʼt known exactly. Thanks to the testimony of those who are released from captivity, we have information about where our people are kept and with whom they are in the cells.

Since February 24, the Civil Liberties Center has documented 671 enforced disappearances. Eleven people were killed, 250 were released from captivity, 410 remain in captivity in the occupied territories or in Russia. About 20 percent of prisoners are civilians.

We donʼt know how many prisoners of war and civilians are held in the filtration camps. We are talking about tens of thousands of people. If the FSB does not like a person at the checkpoint, they send he or she to a camp, from there to Russia or to a colony in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions.

That is, a Ukrainian man or woman can be imprisoned in Russia, but the Russian side hides it?

Savva: The Russian Federation creates an information vacuum so that we donʼt know about the prisoners — neither the total number nor the names. In this way itʼs easier to put psychological pressure on the prisoner and Ukraine.

The military police, which guards Ukrainians, can inform that the person was detained “for opposing a special military operation, his or her needs are covered in accordance with the norms of the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War”. The fact that civilians and prisoners of war are held for the same reason is another violation of international humanitarian law. There is a difference in official status for prisoners of war and civilian prisoners.

The occupying power has the right to detain a civilian. But as soon as Kyiv, Chernihiv, and almost the entire Kharkiv region were liberated, Russia should have let everyone go, and not exchange its military for our civilians. But no, these people are not returned, because the Russian authorities perceive them as prisoners of war and therefore, according to the Third Geneva Convention, are going to keep them until the end of the war.

How often are civilians kidnapped during the occupation?

Yashchuk: According to our database, 50 percent of kidnappings happen at home: the Russians either know who they came after, or enter a high-rise building and kidnap people.

In the spring, the Russian military installed a system in the occupied territories that tracked mobile phones — they found out how many phones were in the building, came and checked them. This is how Victoria Andrusha, a mathematics teacher from Brovary, was captured. Fortunately, she was released in September.

Victoria was kidnapped on March 25. She sent her sister a photo and a message: “Tanks have entered our street.” The military found the message, took her to Glushkovo, and from there to the Kursk pre-trial detention center No. 1. Victoria was kept in the farthest cell because she “caused trouble”: she behaved courageously, spoke Ukrainian.

In what conditions are Ukrainians held?

Savva: Sometimes prisoners in detention centers donʼt have warm clothes. This is already torture. When a person is cold for many days, there is no need to beat him or her — itʼs impossible to bear such circumstances. During interrogations, Ukrainians are beaten and tortured with electric current.

Yashchuk: Forcing captives to sing the Russian national anthem and other propaganda songs is bullying. But the most difficult thing for people is not in the colonies, but during the journey there. Prisoners may not be fed or given water for three days. Not everyone survives the journey — the captives die, and their bodies are dumped in the forest.

Ferrum Alien / Кateryna Bandus / «Бабель»

Are Ukrainians being treated in Russian prisons? Can a family send a parcel through the International Committee of the Red Cross?

Savva: Simple methods of treatment are available to our people. Although there are cases when medical assistance was provided with great delay.

Lawyers donʼt have access to prisoners. Sometimes relatives or Ukrainian human rights organizations know in which prison a person is kept. The family signs a contract with a Russian lawyer, he or she goes to the place, but they tell him: “No, there is no such person here.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross does not know about all prisons where Ukrainians are held. its representatives donʼt visit those the Red Cross does not know about.

Yashchuk: Itʼs getting cold, there are no humane conditions of keeping prisoners in Russia. We insist on cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross so that relatives can send warm things, food, and letters through them — everything that is provided for by the Geneva Conventions. For example, a prisoner can send a letter twice a month, and receive a parcel once a month.

Did the families of the prisoners receive at least one letter from their relatives?

Yashchuk: Yes. Families began receiving letters from prisoners in late August, although people wrote them in May.

Thanks to the letters, many learned that their relatives were in captivity. Letters reach Ukraine through the International Committee of the Red Cross. They are handed over by the Russians, and here the National Information Bureau receives them and sends them to the families.

Various letters arrive from the colonies. In some, people talk about their condition, how they eat, what conditions they are in, how they miss their relatives and want to go home. And there are letters with the same wording: “Alive, healthy, everything is fine.” For example, letters from Novozybkov come in one line.

How did you collect information about pre-trial detention centers and colonies, if Russia is hiding everything?

Savva: We have three sources of information. Internal witnesses are people who were in captivity and Russians who work in pre-trial detention centers or colonies.

External witnesses — Russian prisoners are released and give us information. Or their relatives do it. In Russia, a man went to a colony to visit his wife. When he was passing by a building on the territory of the colony, he heard how Ukrainians were being forced to sing the Russian national anthem. He wrote to human rights defenders he knew, and they contacted us.

Sometimes we get information from the Internet. A journalist or a human rights defender visited the colony, found out that Ukrainians were there and spoke publicly about it.

Have Ukrainian prisoners created a burden on Russian prisons?

Savva: Yes, a huge number of prisoners were transported from the south of Russia. The places where they are now being held are 30 percent overcrowded. The cells are designed for ten people, but they hold more. We know of a case when seventeen people were kept in a cell for two.

Why does Russia have so many captured Ukrainian civilians?

Yashchuk: They are prisoners of the Kremlin, Putin and his team are trading their lives. When the fighting was going on in the Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv regions, many Russians were captured. In order to have an exchange fund, the Russian military kidnapped civilians. Two security guards in the Kyiv region were captured and taken to Russia because they left work in peacoats — the Russian military thought they were in military uniform. The owner of a car repair shop was arrested in Gostomel. His hands were greased — the occupier thought that the man was repairing military equipment of the Ukrainian army.

This is the essence of Russia. They donʼt know how to fight with the military, so they fight with civilians.

Ferrum Alien / Кateryna Bandus / «Бабель»

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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