Savagely tortured to death for the Ukrainian flag in Russian-occupied Crimea and Donbas
Russia’s aggression in 2014 brought death and destruction to Ukraine on a scale not seen since the Second World War. It is impossible to name all the victims, but on this Day of the Ukrainian Flag, we can at least remember three Ukrainians, the youngest of whom, Stepan Chubenko, was just 16, whose torture and death were directly linked with the flag or ribbons in its colours.
Ametov, a 39-year-old Crimean Tatar with three small daughters, was the first victim of Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. On 3 March 2014, he went out onto the square outside the Crimean Parliament which Russian soldiers without insignia had seized just days before. Holding a Ukrainian flag, he spoke with journalists if they approached him, but otherwise stood in silent protest at the invasion of his homeland.
He had been standing there for an hour and a half when paramilitaries grabbed him, and forced him into a car, before driving away. His hideously mutilated body was found two weeks later, on March 15. His head had been bound with tape, and handcuffs were lying nearby. He is believed to have died from brain damage after they gouged out his eyes.
There is video footage which shows his abductors, yet there has effectively never been a proper investigation nor any attempt to bring his killers to justice.
Reshat Ametov’s last post on Facebook had been a question: “Russian friend, if they order you to, will you shoot me?”
Rybak was 42, a deputy of the Horlivka City Council and a father of two. He was seized on 17 April 2014, after he tried to remove the flag of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [‘DPR’] which the Russian and pro-Russian militants had hung over the Council building and restore the Ukrainian flag to its place. The video here shows Rybak being stopped as he tried to enter the building, pushed and beaten, before being forced into a car and taken away by masked men in camouflage gear.
It should not be forgotten that none of these events would have happened had a unit of around 50 very well-armed Russian fighters, led by ‘former’ Russian military intelligence officer Igor Girkin, not taken over Sloviansk on 12 April. Ukraine’s SBU [Security Service] believe that the order to abduct Rybak came from Igor Bezler [or ‘Bes’, [a devil]). Bezler played a prominent role in Russia’s invasion of Crimea, and, together with Girkin, in seizing control in the Donetsk oblast. It was Girkin, the SBU believe, who ordered that Rybak be brought to their headquarters in Sloviansk where he was doubtless tortured to death.
Rybak’s mutilated body was found in a river near Sloviansk, together with that of 19-year-old Yuri Popravka, a student and Maidan activist, who had set off from Kharkiv to Sloviansk, hoping to gather information about the militants.
Stepan was just 16 and still at school when he was seized by militants in Donetsk on 23 July 2014.
He had taken a very strongly pro-Ukrainian stand from the beginning of the conflict, and his parents had tried to get him out of Donbas for that reason, including by sending him to stay with relatives in Russia. He insisted on returning to Ukraine after the reports began of bombings, saying that he couldn’t remain in the rear like a rat when his parents and his country were in danger.
His parents had thought it would be safe for him to return after Kramatorsk and Sloviansk were liberated. Tragically, Stepan travelled back via Donetsk which was still occupied. He was seized on 23 July because of the blue and yellow ribbons (of the Ukrainian flag) on his rucksack, and a ‘Karpaty’ football club scarf that the passionate footballer had inside it.
His parents were panic-stricken when he did not return, and travelled to the militant-controlled area themselves, even meeting with the militant leader Alexander Zakharchenko.
It is because of this, and then later an investigation by the Ukrainian authorities, that we know that the 16-year-old child was first beaten in Donetsk, and then taken to the village of Horbachevo-Mykhailivna near Donetsk, where he was held prisoner until 28 July. Three men were involved: Vadim Pogodin, a militant ‘commander’ of the so-called Kerch Battalion, and two of his subordinates, Mikhail Sukhomlinov and Yury Moskalev.
The Ukrainian Prosecutor, in reporting that all three men had been sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment, mentions only that the men decided to kill him and made him get on his knees, facing an open grave, before killing him with three shots to the head.
Due to the militant investigation, there are more harrowing details. Novaya Gazeta has published a copy of Moskalev’s interrogation, in which he states clear that Pogodin gave the order to kill Stepan and that it was Maxim Sukhomlinov vwho had carried out the order. Moskalev served a short sentence then fled to Russia. Stepan’s mother Stalina Chubenko has learned that Moskalev was detained in 2016 on an INTERPOL red notice, however Russia did not hand him over to Ukraine.
Sukhomlinov was ordered to kill Stepan, who was on his knees, with his hands bound behind his back. When Pogodin saw that he was still alive, he grabbed the gun and shot him. Stalina Chubenko described to Donbas.Realii how “three burly and armed men shot a tortured, unarmed 16-year-old boy, whom they’d tied up with the T-shirt he played football in over his head. During the exhumation, I saw my child with his hands bound with scotch tape”.
The militants told her that her son had not cried, and not asked for mercy.
The report from the so-called DPR prosecutor said that Pogodin told Sukhomlinov and Moskalev that Stepan was “a member of Right Sector, a participant in the burning of people in the Trade Union House in Odesa (a Russian propaganda lie), “and is also the bearer of other political and ideological views for which he should be shot”.
Russia went through a cynical pretence of considering whether to return Pogodin to Ukraine before refusing, and thus openly protecting a person guilty of torturing and murdering a child.