10 months of torture in Donetsk secret prison for supporting Ukraine
Former hostage Stanislav Aseyev was not exaggerating when he told an audience at the 2020 Munich Security Conference that right this minute, in the centre of Donetsk, “somebody is being savagely and inhumanly tortured”. Aseyev knows first-hand about ‘Izolyatsia’, the former art centre turned into a secret prison where Russian and Russian-controlled militants torture with impunity. So too do Ukrainians whom the militants are still refusing to release, like Valery Matyushenko. Although the 55-year-old is now held in a ‘normal’ prison, we know enough about the treatment he received during 10 months at ‘Izolyatsia’ to understand that it is vital to secure his release.
Matyushenko is a musician, and played in restaurants, however he and his wife, Tetyana, also had a small business. She ran a shop, while he had a workshop where he fixed various household appliances. The building was seized in 2014 by Russian and pro-Russian militants who turned it into a military unit. The family had never concealed their pro-Ukrainian views, with this already dangerous in the Russian proxy ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [DPR]. It is, however, likely that Matyushenko provided Ukraine with information about Russian military personnel based in occupied Kalmiyske (former Komsomolske, in Donetsk oblast). The military personnel that Russia is still claiming is not present in Donbas, although Matyushenko is by no means the first Ukrainian to be tortured at Izolyatsia for noticing and reporting their presence.
Kalmiuske is 50 kilometres south of Donetsk and Ilovaisk and only just over 30 kilometres from the border with Russia. Tatyana is clear that much of the shelling that they experienced came from that direction. It was after the battle near Ilovaisk (at the end of August 2014), she says “that Russian military entered the city with their technology.” Later Motorola (the notorious Russian mercenary Arsen Pavlov) hung the flags of ‘DPR’ and Kalmiuske became a closed city, with the population terrified, especially after a number of ‘arrests’ in 2017. There were at least four from May to July 2017, including that of Valery Matyushenko who was then 52.
Matyushenko disappeared on 15 July 2017. His wife later learned that out on the street he had had a bag put over his head, and been taken away. She also learned from a friend of his that in those last few days, he had spoken of being followed. He almost certainly didn’t tell his wife so as not to worry her.
The first three days after his disappearance were the worst, with no information at all. Then people from the so-called ‘DPR ministry of state security’ turned up to search their home. They claimed that Matyushenko had confessed to spying for the SBU [Ukraine’s Security Service] and they were looking for his mobile which was supposed to provide proof.
She has told Donbas.Realii that one of the militants told her that her husband was “a hard nut to crack” who had taken a long time to surrender. He added that it had only been when they threatened his family that he gave them the ‘confession’ they demanded.
A few days later, they allowed Tatyana to bring some food items for her husband and, at the same time, showed her a piece of paper where it was Tatyana who was said to be under suspicion. “Decide for yourself”, they said . “You next and your son will end up in a children’s home”.
Two weeks later Tatyana left occupied Donbas, together with her son. Pavlo had turned 16 just days before his father was seized
Later her mother was told that all ‘charges’ had been withdrawn from Tatyana and she decided to take the risk and see her husband during the only ‘hearing’ that was not behind closed doors (because a UN representative was present). She had just 5 minutes and recalls that she went up to him and tried to take him by the hand. He looked through her and beyond, giving her the impression that he was looking at his captors to see what their reaction was, fearful that they would grab her.
It seems he was right to be fearful. Minutes after she returned home after the ‘trial’, several cars drove up with so-called ‘ministry of state security’ people inside. She says that she spent the next three days sitting in the flat on the floor, too afraid to even turn on a light. It was thanks to a friend tipping off her father that the militants had gone off to a local café and got into a fight that she managed to get away. She has not been back to occupied Donbas since then, but works tirelessly trying to secure her husband’s release.
On 28 March 2019 Matyushenko was sentenced to 10 years for supposedly collaborating with he SBU. He was still held in Izolyatsia for a while after that, however, is now imprisoned in prison colony No. 32 in Makiivka, together with dozens of other Ukrainians, also imprisoned for alleged ‘spying’ who are held in separate barracks. They are seldom allowed ‘walks’ in the open air, and they receive no medical care. According to Teyana, her husband has the Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder resulting in, for example, nervous tics. Unsurprisingly, this is getting worse, doubtless because of the stress Matyushenko is under and the bad conditions.
Tetyana Matyushenko is one of many relatives of hostages frustrated by the last exchange in April in which the militants appear to have simply dictated whom they would release. This left most of the hostages still imprisoned, including the many like Valery Matyushenko almost certainly imprisoned for their support for Ukraine.