Threats against Crimean political prisoner sentenced to 14 years for pleading innocent
Russian prison authorities are effectively threatening reprisals against Oleksiy Bessarabov because he is refusing to hand over the Ukrainian government’s grant to him as a political prisoner in order to pay a preposterous fine. 44-year-old Bessarabov and Volodynyr Dudka (56) are both serving 14-year sentences on entirely fabricated ‘Crimean saboteur’ charges, with both men also ordered to pay fines of 300 thousand and 350 thousand roubles, respectively.
Ukraine’s Human Rights Ombudsperson, Lyudmyla Denisova reported on 12 February, citing Bessarabov’s family, that the Russian prison administration have been trying to force him to pay the fine via the state assistance which Ukraine allocates for political prisoners and their families, or by doing forced labour. Bessarabov’s refusal has been met with blackmail and threats to throw him into a SHIZO, or punishment cell, where the conditions are even worse than where he is presently held.
Lawyer Sergei Legostov visited Bessarabov back in September 2020 and reported then that the administration was trying to get this fine paid. Bessarabov’s family was simply not in a position to pay it. His elderly mother is retired, and he has a child who needs constant medical treatment.
Russia’s political arrests began soon after its invasion and annexation of Crimea, and it is now holding over 100 Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners in occupied Crimea or in Russian prisons. While some civic activists or journalists are targeted over their human rights defence or openly pro-Ukrainian position, others have been arrested almost by quota.
The arrests on 9 November 2016 were the FSB’s second ‘Crimean saboteur’ case that year. The first arrests in August had failed to convince the international community that Ukraine had been planning ‘incursions’ on its own illegally occupied territory, with the multiple problems including the lack of any evidence that the alleged ‘saboteurs’ had ever set eyes on each other.
On 9 November 2016, the FSB went for three good friends: academics Dmytro Shtyblikov and Oleksiy Bessarabov, both internationally known experts on the Black Sea Fleet and Volodymyr Dudka, a retired Ukrainian naval captain. Two much younger Crimeans - Oleksiy Stohniy and Hlib Shabliy were arrested 10 days later. Both Stohniy and Shabliy were later convicted of charges virtually unrelated to the sabotage that they had ‘confessed to’.
The FSB claimed on 10 November that an unspecified number of men had been detained as “members of a sabotage – terrorist group of the Ukrainian Defence Ministry’s Central Intelligence Department”. They were alleged to have been planning acts of sabotage on “military and other infrastructure in Crimea”. The FSB asserted that they had removed “very powerful explosive devices, weapons and ammunition, special communications devices and other significant evidence of criminal activities, including plans of the sites for the intended acts of sabotage”.
They did not explain why, if they had found such a ‘stockpile’, they did not show this, but rather a search of Shtyblikov’s flat with the camera lingering over a Ukrainian flag on the wall, a business card purportedly belonging to Dmytro Yarosh, former head of ‘Right Sector’, and ‘weapons’ which sports fans immediately identified as airguns which Styblikov used in the game Airsoft (Strike Ball). The ‘business card’ in question had already aroused mirth and multiple Internet memes back in 2014 when Russian propaganda television triumphantly displayed it, claiming it had been found in the gutted wreck of a car which they claimed that Ukrainians had attacked.
Shtyblikov, who is now 50, was designated the role of ‘ringleader’ of a supposed sabotage plot, and was prevented from seeing an independent lawyer for over a year. Both physical means and threats against his family are believed to have been used to obtain his agreement to admit the charges. He was sentenced, on 16 November 2017, to five years’ maximum security imprisonment after a ‘trial’ (under presiding judge Gennady Vladimirovich Nikitin) that took all of 50 minutes.
Dudka and Bessarabov did eventually get lawyers and remained firm in rejecting the charges. Both men complained early on of illegal methods used to obtain biological traces. Dudka, for example, was seized on the way to the doctor where he was being treated for an ulcer. Saliva and other samples were taken without any protocol being drawn up and without his lawyer present. The reason for this became clear during the trial with the prosecution claiming that biological traces had been ‘found’ on a map of the city which allegedly showed the places where acts of sabotage were planned. However, an expert analysis showed that the traces were only around the edge of the map, which would make no sense if this had been, as claimed, a map that the men were actually using.
The prosecution also asserted that some person involved in Ukrainian military intelligence in Kharkiv had asked a stranger in Crimea to buy telephones and pass them over to the defendants. This idiotic claim was used to explain a telephone which was almost certainly planted during the supposed search of Dudka’s home. Dudka’s son, Ilya, reports that the men who came to ‘search’ his father’s home ‘found’ the telephone very quickly, then left, without bothering to pretend to search the kitchen or bathroom. The defence demonstrated that there are discrepancies in the testimony given by one of the ‘witnesses’ whom the FSB brought with them for the search of Bessarabov’s home and by two who were present when a secret hiding place with explosive devices was allegedly found.
The lack of any real evidence of plans for widescale ‘sabotage’, the men’s allegations of torture and such flagrant falsification were ignored by the first-instance court. On 4 April 2019, ‘judges’ Igor Vladimirovich Kozhevnikov; Vasily Aleksandrovich Avkhimov; and Vladimir Ilych Reshetnyak from the de facto Sevastopol City Court declared both Dudka and Bessarabov guilty and passed huge sentences, only slightly lower than those demanded by the Russian-controlled prosecutor. Both men were sentenced to 14 years in a maximum security prison colony with Dudka fined 350 thousand roubles (almost 5,000 euros) and Bessarabov – 300 thousand.
The renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre has analysed these cases, and considers Bessarabov, Dudka, Shtyblikov; Shabliy and Stohniy to be political prisoners. Their grounds are compelling, yet on 15 October 2019, judges from Russia’s Supreme Court took just hours to go through the pretence of considering the men’s appeals, before upholding the sentences.
Please write to Oleksiy Bessarabov and Volodymyr Dudka
Even just a few words will tell them and Russia that they are not forgotten. Letters need to be in Russian, and any political subjects or reference to their case should be avoided. If possible, include an envelope and some thin paper so that they can respond.
If Russian is a problem, the following would be fine, maybe with a photo or card (the address on the envelope can be in Russian or English)
Желаю Вам здоровья, мужества и терпения, надеюсь на скорое освобождение. Простите, что мало пишу – мне трудно писать по-русски, но мы все о Вас помним.
[Hi. I wish you good health, courage and patience and hope that you will soon be released. I’m sorry that this letter is short – it’s hard for me to write in Russian., but you are not forgotten. ]
Алексей Евгеньевич Бессарабов, 1976 гр
ФКУ ИК-1 УФСИН России по Ставропольскому краю,
357000, с. Кочубеевское, Российская Федерация
[or in English Bessarabov, Aleksei Yevgenievich, b. 1976
Russia 357000, Stavropol Krai, Kochubeyevskoe, Prison No. 1
Владимир Михайлович Дудка, 1964 гр,
ФКУ ИК-11 УФСИН России по Ставропольскому краю,
355044 г. Ставрополь-44. Российская Федерация
[Or in English: Dudka, Vladimir Mikhailovich, b. 1964
Russia 355044, Stavropol-44, Prison No. 11]