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16.09.2018 | Halya Coynash

Lawyer prevented from seeing Ukrainian political prisoner Balukh after reports he was beaten

Volodymyr Balukh (left) in June 2018, Sergei Berezhnoy, SIZO head
   

The report that Volodymyr Balukh is in severe pain after being beaten in prison has not been confirmed or refuted, but only because both his lawyer and Archbishop Kliment, his civic defender, were prevented from visiting him on 15 September.  Balukh has been on total or near-total hunger strike since March and is very weak anyway, making reports of ill-treatment of immense concern.

On 14 September, Akhtem Chiygoz, the Crimean Tatar Mejlis leader who was himself held prisoner for nearly three years in the same Simferopol SIZO [remand prison], reported that Balukh had been taken out of his cell by the head of the SIZO Sergei Berezhnoy who ordered him to get on his knees.  He refused, after which he was kicked to the concrete floor, and beaten around the head, liver area and legs.  According to his information, Balukh was, as a result, suffering pain to the head and liver. 

Balukh’s lawyer immediately contacted the duty officer at the SIZO who asserted that there had been no incidents at all.  The lawyer said he wished to ascertain this for himself, and was told that he could come the next day (Saturday) and, if the head of the SIZO agreed, see Balukh. 

The lawyer arrived early on Saturday, and was forced to wait for Berezhnoy’s arrival.  When the latter finally arrived, he refused permission to see Balukh until Monday, claiming that this was because it was the weekend.  He further asserted that he had seen Balukh, and that everything was fine with him.  Since the information that Chiygoz received suggests that Berezhnoy was responsible for the reported ill-treatment, his acknowledgement that he saw Balukh can hardly be deemed reassuring.

After Archbishop Kliment arrived, he and the lawyer phoned the Crimean Penitentiary Service but were very rudely refused permission, with the excuse also being that it was the weekend.

There was a conflicting report on 15 September from journalist Anton Naumlyuk, who had been informed that the CCTV camera in Balukh’s cell had broken, after which staff, together with the head of the SIZO Sergei Berezhnoy, had carried out a search. Balukh had been taken out of the cell, with Naumlyuk saying that a verbal altercation ensued, with Berezhnoy accusing him of breaking the camera, and that Balukh had then been taken in handcuffs to a punishment cell.  Neither he nor Chiygoz name their sources, for obvious reasons, however Chiygoz clearly believes that Naumlyuk has simply believed those who carried out the alleged beating.

Balukh went on total hunger strike on 19 March in protest at his first politically-motivated sentence. He was persuaded after 25 days to take what is essentially a bare minimum to slow down the collapse of his organs and probably to prevent force-feeding.  He had then resumed the full hunger strike on 23 June in protest at a second fabricated ‘criminal case’, initiated while he was already imprisoned.  He has since again reverted to a minimal amount.  He is evidently weakened by almost six months with virtually no food and has for some time complained of chest pain, and, more recently, pain in the area around the liver.  Lawyer Olga Dinze recently reported that he is forced to take painkilling medication due to severe pain.

It was reported on 6 September that the Russian government has denied that Balukh is on hunger strike.  In its response to a demand for information from the European Court of Human Rights, Russia also claims that he is regularly examined by doctors and receives proper medical care.  The denial, which was anticipated, directly contradicts all reports from Balukh’s lawyer and the Crimean Human Rights Group’s sources.

Russia’s only response to his alarming condition and to the ECHR demand was to move Balukh to a cell where he is under 24 hour video surveillance.  Balukh has told his lawyer that he believes the camera even reaches the toilet. 

47-year-old Balukh was frighteningly gaunt and frail back in June during the last ‘court hearing’, and he is still now losing weight. 78-year-old Natalya Balukh saw her son a month ago, for the first time in eight months.  She was distraught with concern, saying that her son was skeletal, and looked like an old man.  

Balukh’s persecution is directly linked with the Ukrainian flag he refused to remove from his home, and his unwavering opposition to Russia’s occupation of his Ukrainian homeland. 

Balukh’s problems with the FSB and Russian-controlled police began soon after Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea.  The only difference over the following years has been in the severity of the repressive measures applied, not in the charges, which were absurdly implausible from the outset.  Details here:  Sentenced twice for pro-Ukrainian position in Russian-occupied Crimea.

Russia has used harassment and threats of prosecution to force many Ukrainians from Crimea.  Natalya Balukh had refused to leave her home, and her son could obviously not leave the elderly lady, who is almost blind, alone.

In late November 2016, Balukh nailed a plaque renaming his home No. 18 “Heroes of Nebesna Sotnya St’ in memory of the over 100 Maidan activists who were killed during Euromaidan.  There were immediate demands from the head of the local council to remove it, which he rejected. 

He was arrested nine days later, on December 8, 2016, after a grossly irregular and unexplained ‘search’ of his home.  During this ‘search’, which also resulted in the Ukrainian flag again being removed, the enforcement officers claimed to have found 90 bullets and several TNT explosives.

Balukh had no record of crime, only of harassment under Russian occupation, making it simply inconceivable that he would have held anything illegal in his home.  This was one of many reasons why the renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre declared him a political prisoner almost immediately.

There had been an almost unconcealed level of falsification in this case.  The officer who had supposedly found the ammunition had not been on duty that day and could not name the individuals who had instructed him to be present or their position in the law enforcement bodies. He was just as unable to explain why he’d removed the Ukrainian flag.

The ammunition which the men, wandering in some unclear capacity around the Balukh home, allegedly found, had no fingerprints or other traces to indicate that any member of the family had touched them.  Most important, the ammunition in question was on the official register of weapons and ammunition in Barnaul, the Altai region of the Russian Federation, and was produced back in 1989.   Neither Balukh nor his common-law wife had been allowed to see what was going on, with the officer who effectively held Balukh prisoner during the ‘search’ unable to give a sensible reason for doing so.

The ‘trial’ that ended on 16 January 2018, with a conviction and three year seven month sentence passed by ‘judge’ Yelena Tedeyeva from the same Razdolne District Court was an exact remake of the original ‘trial’ that ended with his conviction on August 4, 2017.  The defence had forced the revoking of the first sentence since the ‘judge’ then, Maria Bedritskaya, had been involved in the earlier administration prosecutions of Balukh. 

Balukh’s courage and his final addresses to the ‘court’ may have prompted the FSB to seek a longer sentence, with the grounds used for this as inadequate as all previous charges against him. After an incident, provoked by the head of the temporary detention unit in Razdolne, which should have, at most, resulted in a disciplinary measure, new criminal charges were brought. 

On 5 July 2018, ‘judge’ Tetyana Pyrzhalo from the Razdolne District Court sentenced Balukh to an extra three years’ imprisonment for supposedly ‘disorganizing the work of a detention unit’ (under Article 321 § 2 of Russia’s criminal code).   

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