Shevchenko and Russia’s first Ukrainian political prisoner in occupied Crimea
It was exactly seven years ago, on 9 March 2014, that Ukrainians from all over Crimea gathered at monuments to the great Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko in effectively the last demonstrations possible against Russia’s invasion. It was also on that day, even before its ‘formal’ annexation of Crimea, that Russia seized its first Ukrainian political prisoner, Mykola Shyptur. The timing could not have been more poignantly appropriate. 9 March 2014 marked the bicentenary of Shevchenko’s birth, 10 March – the anniversary of his death in Russian exile, in 1861, aged just 48. In the 1960s, Ukrainians began demonstrating defiance of the Soviet regime by gathering at monuments to Shevchenko on 9-10 March, reading poems, singing Ukrainian songs and laying flowers. The gatherings then required courage and could lead to persecution. Within a year of Russian occupation, participants in such a gathering in Simferopol were prosecuted, with the Ukrainian flag called ‘a prohibited symbol’, with the gathering itself outlawed the following year.
On 9-10 March 2014, there were still international correspondents on the ground in Crimea, with commentary from the BBC making it possible to expose the lies around the first arrest of a Ukrainian political prisoner.
It was only in 2016 that lawyers from the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union learned of Shyptur’s existence and understood that his case bore all the hallmarks of politically-motivated persecution.
Shyptur’s case stands out, and not only because he is the first imprisoned victim of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. There are grounds for suspecting that he would have been killed, as was Reshat Ametov, by the armed paramilitaries deployed in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but for the fact that a police officer became involved.
Mykola Shyptur is from Ivano-Frankivsk in Western Ukraine. He and his wife, Yulya and their small son, Serhiy, spent several years living in Spain, but returned to Ukraine shortly before the Revolution of Dignity [the Euromaidan protests]. Shyptur spent several months on Maidan, mainly helping to guard the Kyiv City Council building seized by (one group of) protesters on 1 December 2013.
He and three other Maidan activists (Serhiy Tkachuk, Vladislav Polishchuk – a doctor, and Olha Chernyatynska) set off for Sevastopol three days before the planned rallies in support of Ukrainian unity on 9-10 March. By 6 March, everyone was well aware of the brutality shown by the armed paramilitaries being used as back-up for the Russian soldiers without insignia who had seized control. They were hoping 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 just why the so-called referendum that Russia was using to rubberstamp its annexation, was an illegal farce.
It is clear from international media reports, such as that from the BBC, that the violence “erupted when pro-Russian groups attacked dozens of people guarding the Shevchenko rally”, The rally itself can be seen here. The video where Shyptur can be seen trying to calm people down is no longer available on YouTube, however there are screenshots and, doubtless, copies.
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 differently, but may have saved his life. A police officer arrived and recorded the incident, this making it harder for the paramilitaries to organize his ‘disappearance’, as they had on several other occasions.
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. 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, with no heed taken of the danger which Shyptur had faced from his alleged victim. This armed paramilitary, helping Russian soldiers without insignia in their violent seizure of Ukrainian territory, was actually called “a person carrying out his official duties or civic duty” in the 10-year sentence passed on Shyptur. 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 son, now 14, growing up without his father.