• Topics / Human Rights Abuses in Russian-occupied Crimea
Russia’s first Ukrainian political prisoner was supposed to die
Maidan activist Mykola Shyptur probably became Russia’s first Ukrainian political prisoner by mistake, although not for any good reason. It is likely that the armed paramilitaries involved in Russia’s annexation of Crimea would have killed him, but for the fact that a police officer got involved. Shyptur has now been held prisoner in occupied Crimea for six years, with his only hope lying in a prisoner exchange.
Over two years had passed after Shyptur’s imprisonment on purportedly criminal charges when human rights activists first sounded the alarm over the evident political elements to his case. It is likely that all the details of this strange case must await Shyptur’s release, however, the basic facts are known.
Shyptur is from Ivano-Frankivsk in Western Ukraine. He and his wife Yulya, and their small son Serhiy (who is now 13) had spent some years in Spain, but had returned to Ukraine shortly before the Euromaidan protests.
Like very many other Ukrainians who had not previously been involved in politics or civic activism, Shyptur took part in Euromaidan, mainly helping to guard the Kyiv City Council building seized by (one group of) protesters on 1 December 2013.
On 27 February 2014, Russian soldiers without insignia seized control in Simferopol, installing by gunpoint a marginal pro-Russian politician as ‘leader’ and announcing an illegal ‘referendum’ on joining Russia.
This was the first annexation of part of a European country since Nazi Germany and the Kremlin tried to reduce the role of its military and instead use Russian and pro-Russian so-called ‘self-defence’ armed paramilitaries for all the dirty and violent measures to crush protest. It was these paramilitaries, led by (officially former) Russian military intelligence officer Igor Girkin [Strelkov], who abducted and tortured to death peaceful protester Reshat Ametov and who were almost certainly behind the abductions and likely murder of civic activists Timur Shaimardanov; Seiran Zinedinov and others. The paramilitaries were involved in numerous attacks on peaceful pro-Ukrainian demonstrators, civic activists and journalists.
Shyptur and three other Maidan activists (Serhiy Tkachuk, Vladislav Polishchuk – a doctor, and Olha Chernyatynska) set off for Sevastopol three days before a planned pro-Ukrainian rally marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko on 9 March. They hoped that their experience on Maidan would enable them to help protect the pro-Ukrainian demonstrators, and if necessary, provide medical care. A local activist had rented a flat for them, and they spent the first two nights posting leaflets that they had brought from Kyiv, explaining what a farce the so-called referendum was.
From 9 March, there are two entirely divergent versions of events. Ben Brown and a BBC crew were present at the pro-Ukrainian rally which was entirely peaceful until “pro-Russian demonstrators – young men and Cossacks with whips” appeared. Although it is clear that the verbal altercations were two-way, the violence described and which led the BBC to fear for their own safety was solely from the pro-Russian demonstrators. In the video here, Shyptur can be seen trying to calm people down.
Since Shyptur was slightly injured, and Tkachuk had a bad rib fracture, the four decided that they should remain in the flat for a while, since the paramilitaries had seen their faces and would be hunting for them.
The role played by Chernyatynska in what happened next is at very least strange. She suddenly insisted on going out and would not listen to the others’ warning that she would be putting them all in danger if caught.
Around 20 minutes later, she called Shyptur, asking him to come and rescue her. It is not clear what exactly she said, but Shyptur pulled out a pistol that the other men were unaware that he had, saying, as he ran out the door, that it might be needed.
As the others had warned, Chernyatynska did indeed lead paramilitaries to the flat, but only after Shyptur, having found her surrounded by paramilitaries, tried to help them both escape by firing some warning shots.
He was caught and savagely beaten, with the torture methods used both then and later including an electric shock gun and savage injuries (breaking his fingers). Lawyer Edem Semedlyaev only saw him for the first time in 2016, yet reported then that he still bore the marks of the electric shocks.
The other three were held in captivity under 26 March, 2014, but were finally released and able to return to mainland Ukraine.
The gunshots meant that Shyptur was treated different, although may also saved his life, as a police officer arrived and did have to record the incident, making it harder for the paramilitaries to organize his ‘disappearance’.
A propaganda version of the events was shown on Russian-controlled local TV, with paramilitaries telling a police officer about how they had “detained” the young woman and how Shyptur had started shooting.
Essentially everything was turned on its head in the Russian and Russian-controlled prosecution version, including the historical facts.
The Russian ‘court ruling’ asserts, for example, that:
“At around 16.00 on 09.03.2014, on Shevchenko Square in Sevastopol, being a radically inclined citizen of Ukraine and protesting against the referendum on the status of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, pursuing the aim of carrying out provocation, aimed at disrupting the referendum, he took part in an unauthorized demonstration against the holding of that referendum”.
Shyptur was ‘tried’ illegally under Russian law, with the version presented being that the shots were not in the air, but aimed three times at A.V. Kulish, a member of ‘Russian Bloc’ (i.e. one of the paramilitaries). This, it was claimed, had been attempted murder.
While it can certainly be debated whether Shyptur should have had the pistol and fired even warning shots, there is a surreal absurdity about charges against him, when Russian soldiers and armed paramilitaries were carrying off an armed invasion of Ukrainian territory. His conviction on 28 April 2015 was positively grotesque. ‘Judge’ Volodymyr Sybula from the Gagarin District Court in Sevastopol entirely ignored the danger that Shyptur had faced from the alleged ‘victim’ (one of the paramilitaries) and passed a 10-year sentence for the supposed ‘attempted murder of persons carrying out their official duties or civic duty’. A further charge of illegally transporting weapons was dropped at appeal level with this reducing the sentence to nine years.
Shyptur remains imprisoned in Simferopol with his and his family’s main hope being that Shyptur can be released in the next exchange of prisoners, although it is quite unclear when that will take place.