Izolyatsia: a Donetsk concentration camp too toxic even for Russia?
The first photos have appeared on the Internet of the Izolyatsia secret prison in occupied Donetsk, with speculation rife as to the identity of the ‘Donetsk Tractor driver’ [Донецкий Тракторист] who posted them anonymously on Telegram. The photos’ authenticity has been confirmed by former hostages, imprisoned and tortured in what they refer to as a concentration camp. Who the ‘tractor driver’ is remains unclear, though his very title, Donbas Realii points out, is a dig at Russian propaganda, hearkening back to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claim, back in February 2015, that those fighting in Donbas are “yesterday’s miners and yesterday’s tractor drivers”.
Donbas.Realii contacted the author, via his channel, and was told that he himself was held in one of the illegal prisons in the so-called ‘Donetsk people’s republic’, and that his main aim is to secure the closure of secret prisons in Donetsk. He asserts that he is in contact with prisoners now.
How much this is to be believed is another matter. Hostages who have been seized and tortured by the so-called ‘DPR ministry of state security’ for their pro-Ukrainian views, tweets or similar revealing details about the movements of Russian military personnel or equipment, etc. are held in horrific conditions, with absolutely no access to the Internet. There are very many former militants, both Russian and Ukrainian, held at Izolyatsia, but, judging by the accounts of former hostages, the militants certainly do not receive privileged treatment. In fact, quite the contrary, since publicity about Ukrainian hostages can help to get them added to the exchange list and released.
Stanislav Pechonkin spent almost three years in DPR captivity, with a large part of that in Izolyatsia. He had already been brutally tortured before being taken to Izolyatsia to be ‘worked on’ more. The torture included beatings while he was held against the wall, with his arms and legs stretched out, and electric shocks, with the electrodes attached to his fingers. He recounts that the torture was unendurable, and he would invent things just to get them to stop.
Pechonkin is convinced that the photos could only have been published by somebody from the ‘prison’ administration or from the so-called ‘DPR ministry of state security’. This is not the initiative of some kind of ‘Robin Hood’, he adds, nor is it a rebellion within the system. It is probably a conflict of clans, he suspects, , and notes that he was aware of conflict between different groups or clans while imprisoned himself.
Journalist and writer Stanislav Aseyev also spent most of 31 months of captivity at Izolyatsia. While he too is disinclined to view ‘Donetsky Traktorist’ as a Robin Hood figure, Aseyev assumes that there are some “from the administration who have still retained some braincells” and have begun to understand the prosecution they face for their behaviour in this secret prison and the fact that they can whistle for any help from their ‘friends in the Russian FSB’. He suggests that they may be hoping in this way to get some kind of leniency.
Izolyatsia Room where prisoners are tortured with electric currents attached to parts of the body From the photos published by Donetsky Traktorist
Denis Kazansky, a journalist originally from Donetsk and now a member of the Ukrainian delegation to the Trilateral negotiations in Minsk, believes the leak of photos suggests that the Izolyatsia secret prison “has become too toxic for Russia”, and that somebody within ‘DPR’ is trying to use the photos to get the prison closed. Whoever was behind the leak, those involved in torturing people at Izolyatsia certainly have grounds for concern. Will the source ‘shop’ them tomorrow? While the photos, although the first that confirm what is happening in this former art centre, may not ultimately be sufficient proof of crimes, they do include pages from the register, recording which hostages were summoned to the so-called ‘ministry of state security’, etc. Those pages may well prove highly incriminating for individuals complicit in torturing Ukrainian hostages.
The standard refrain, from within DPR and Moscow, that there are no secret prisons, has certainly received a blow, though not entirely the first. The Russian publication, Moskovsky Komsomolets, recently reported on the DPR ‘arrest’ of Roman Manekin, a Russian World fanatic and propagandist for DPR. Manekin is a Russian, and vocal enough to have made his three imprisonments noticed in Russia, however this time a Russia newspaper has done the unthinkable. It not only spoke of Manekin being arrested in “a purge”, but said that he was being held at Izolyatsia, It even called this secret prison, which, like the Russian soldiers in occupied Donbas, is officially “not there”, a concentration camp.
Izolyatsia and the horrific torture applied there have also recently received attention because of the Russian Wikipedia’s extraordinary proposal to delete its entry on the ‘Izolyatsia’ secret prison in Donetsk, with the reasons cited including problems with neutrality and, most incredibly, lack of importance. There are also notes suggesting multiple issues with both the Ukrainian and English entries, though no suggestion that these should be removed. All three entries provide references to the accounts of witnesses who were tortured at the prison, and to the latest Report on the human rights situation in Ukraine from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (0HCHR). Since all point out that Izolyatsia is a secret prison, it is hard to understand what kind of ‘neutrality’ and balance can be achieved. The Russian-controlled ‘republic’ is, after all, denying the existence of such a prison and is preventing international monitors from visiting it.
There is considerable witness testimony and the accounts are consistent with one another, which is generally all that can be expected when one side has every reason to conceal the torture and other crimes they are committing.
According to Andriy Leshchenko from the Prosecutor General’s Office, they have so far identified five people suspected of torture and other crimes at Izolyatsia, although they believe the total number of such individuals to be around fifty.
There remains, however, worryingly little movement or transparency about the trial of Roman Lyahin, the militant who took part in seizing the Izolyatsia Art and Cultural Centre in June 2014 and in turning it into the present ‘concentration camp’. Over a year after his baffling inclusion in the December 2019 exchange of prisoners, there has still been no trial of Yevhen Bryazhnikov, whose involvement in torture and ill-treatment of prisoners has been confirmed by several former hostages.