Russia’s Geopolitical Prisoners
A young Lviv law student in his final year has become the latest of a growing number of Russia’s geopolitical prisoners - Ukrainian nationals held in detention in Russia. The term hostage would be more appropriate were it not for the serious criminal charges that each has been charged with. If the four Crimeans facing absurd ‘terrorist charges following peaceful protest against Russian occupation fall within traditional definitions of political prisoner, and Ukrainian officer Nadiya Savchenko is a prisoner of Russia’s undeclared war, Yury Yatsenko is in Russian detention because he is Ukrainian.
Yatsenko and his friend Bohdan Yarychevsky, a recent law graduate from Lviv, were detained in Russia’s Kursk oblast in early May. They were officially stopped to check their identity. Ukrainian passports may have been sufficient to arouse initial suspicion, but the Russian police officers clearly thought being from Lviv was tantamount to a ‘confession’ in wrongdoing. Yarychevsky recounts how one of the officers, obviously under the influence of Russian media propaganda, immediately called Lviv a ‘fascist city’ and both young men were assumed to be ‘radicals’, members of the nationalist Right Sector, etc.
They were held in a police station without food or sleep for two days, and not allowed to ring their relatives, a lawyer or the Ukrainian consul. During that time the FSB [Russian security service] turned up, interrogated them, suspecting that they had been ‘sent by Dmytro Yarosh’ [the leader of Right Sector] or by Ukraine’s SBU. The ‘grounds’ for such suspicions were a map showing Kursky Station found on their mobile telephone. Yarychevsky explains that they’d saved it in order to get their bearings and know how to get to the station to catch the coach home. The FSB, however, deemed the photo ‘suspicious’ and possibility indicating a plan to blow up the station.
Given the ongoing ‘terrorist’ charges against world-renowned film director Oleg Sentsov and three other Crimeans, it is interesting to note what Yarychevsky and Yatsenko were told on May 6 and 7 this year. Officers in Kursk believed they might be involved in ‘another sabotage group’ like that in Simferopol which was planning to blow up a statue of Lenin. The first arrest in Simferopol was that of Sentsov late on May 10. No terrorist acts had occurred, nor had any statue to Lenin been blown up. Such advance knowledge of a purported plot only strengthens the suspicion that a ‘Crimean plot’ had been thought up, together with the casting of political opponents, by the FSB.
Yatsenko and Yarychevsky were not officially detained for imaginary ‘radicalism’ or ‘nationalism’, nor were they suspected of any criminal offence. A court on May 8 ruled that they had committed an administrative offence by ticking the box ‘private purpose’ on the border entry form, when they should have ticked the ‘tourism’ box.
They were held in a deportation detention centre for three months, initially still without being allowed to contact anybody. That isolation gave the FSB a free hand which they used in their methods of interrogation to try to force out ‘confessions’ that the young men had been planning some kind of sabotage in Russia. When threats and psychological pressure failure, they resorted to torture with Yatsenko being taken, in handcuffs and with a bag over his head, to a forest where three officers ‘worked on him’ for several hours. Yarychevsky explains that the torture was bad enough to not be endured many times and the two young men understood that they must somehow contact their relatives. They slashed themselves, causing quite deep wounds and in that way managed to get admitted to an emergency hospital giving them the chance to alert their families.
They were, however, returned to the centre and the torture, this time of Yarychevsky also, and questioning continued. Any attempts to cite the law and the deportation order which had long been in force aroused only laughter from the FSB and the response that they had the ‘administrative resource’ to ensure that the young men were held in Russia as long as the federal security officers chose.
The FSB constantly tried to threaten or persuade them to publicly testify that a military junta had taken over in Ukraine and to ask for political asylum. The young men’s sense of honour and dignity made such lies impossible, and the torment continued.
They constantly received threats that if they didn’t cooperate, criminal charges would be concocted, with drugs or weapons planted.
This is basically what happened, though against only one of the two – Yury Yatsenko - who has been charged with ‘smuggling explosive devices’. Yarychevsky was deported and is now planning a major student campaign in September for his friend’s release.
Yatsenko’s lawyer, Pyotr Zaikin says he has never seen such flagrant disregard for Russian legislation as in this case. He took part in the appeal against Yatsenko’s detention and said that the court was provided with no proof whatsoever of any smuggling having taken place. The court was presented with an ‘explanation’ given by a taxi driver and his friend whom Yatsenko saw and left a bag with for safe-keeping in Nov 2013. Such an ‘explanation’ is not a document that can be used in court, however even if it could be, it would rather be in Yatsenko’s favour. The men confirmed that they checked the bag for anything illegal and found nothing. Several months later, the FSB checked the same bag and ‘found’ 40 grams of an explosive device. It is difficult to write this without the irregularities hitting one in the eye, yet Zaikin’s objections were simply ignored by the court and Yatsenko’s detention upheld. The FSB envisage that their ‘investigation’ into the new charge will take three to four months.
Earlier this year Moscow tried to justify overt aggression against Ukraine, as well as its annexation of the Crimea, as being ‘in defence’ of Russians in Ukraine’. Methods in which any Ukrainian national can become a geopolitical prisoner are a threat to very many Ukrainians living or visiting Russia. In view of the methods applied since early May, it is imperative that this case receives maximum publicity. Yury Yatsenko needs our help.