Putin claims release of Russia’s most tortured Ukrainian political prisoners is a ‘special issue’
Despite a number of highly contentious concessions made by the Ukrainian side, the release of two Ukrainian political prisoners on the exchange list may be in question. During a meeting on 5 September with his friend, the pro-Russian Ukrainian opposition MP, Viktor Medvedchuk, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the release of Mykola Karpyuk and Stanislav Klykh “a special issue”. He claimed that the two men had been convicted of killing Russian soldiers during Russia’s wars in Chechnya and that this was “a complicated matter” for them.
The seizure, imprisonment and trial of Karpyuk and Klykh are ‘special’ for a number of reasons, not least the fact that neither man had ever been near the Chechen scene of the alleged crime before they were taken prisoner. That was only one of multiple reasons why prominent Russian human rights activist Zoya Svetova has called the case “one of the most insane and monstrously falsified prosecutions initiated against Ukrainian nationals since the annexation of Crimea”.
The cruelty if they are not freed would be especially sadistic given that both men have reportedly been brought to Moscow and held in the FSB’s Lefortovo Prison for at least the last two weeks.
It is possible that Putin’s words are purely for propaganda, to enable headlines about handing over “the killers of Russian soldiers in Chechnya”. Even if Karpyuk and Klykh had not been provably far from Chechnya in 1994/95, the hypocrisy of the charges against them would still be staggering. Russia has directly refused to hand over to Ukraine the Donbas fighters who tortured and killed 16-year-old Ukrainian schoolboy, Stepan Chubenko; it has never taken any steps against Russian Donbas militant leaders, like Igor Girkin, who have publicly admitted to carrying out extrajudicial executions of Ukrainians and other war crimes in Donbas; and it has provided the protection of Russian citizenship to a number of former Berkut officers suspected of gunning down activists in February 2014 in Kyiv.
Mykola Karpyuk was effectively abducted in March 2014 and held incommunicado for 18 months until just before the trial. Stanislav Klykh was seized from a hotel in Oryol in August 2014, and held for 10 months without any contact with his family or the consul. Neither man had proper lawyers, and both retracted all lurid and horrific ‘confessions’ to heinous crimes as soon as they were given access to lawyers. Both gave credible accounts, backed in Klykh’s case by medical records, of the torture they were subjected to over very long periods of time.
Alexander Bastrykin, Head of the Russian Investigative Committee, gave an interview back in September 2015 in which he claimed that Ukraine’s former Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, as well as a number of other prominent Ukrainian politicians, had also fought in Chechnya. It became quite clear that the provably nonsensical allegations were based on ‘confessions’ tortured out of Karpyuk and Klykh, as well as ‘testimony’ from a man (Oleksandr Malofeyev) already serving a 24-year sentence and dependent on the prison authorities for life-saving medication.
As mentioned, there are medical records which substantiate Klykh’s consistent allegations that during the 10 months in which he was held incommunicado, he was subjected to terrible torture and plied with psychotropic drugs. Klykh showed signs of serious mental disturbance from soon after the trial began, and there were pleas, including from a psychiatric association in the United Kingdom, for him to receive a proper psychiatric assessment . These were ignored, and instead the ‘court’ in Chechnya charged and convicted Klykh of having ‘insulted’ a prosecutor during a court hearing, where he was in a very disturbed state.
There was documented evidence that Klykh had been taking university exams at the time Russia claimed he was fighting in Chechnya, and there were many witnesses who could confirm that Karpyuk was caring for his dying mother.
If it is not at all unusual for Russian courts to ignore evidence of torture, this trial was indeed ‘special’ in that the FSB had concocted a story that clashed with the historical facts, yet the court went along with the FSB.
In its analysis, Memorial HRC demonstrated that the indictment contained fictitious crimes, a huge number of factual mistakes and was almost totally based on testimony which the men had retracted. Of the 30 Russian soldiers whom Russia claimed that Karpyuk and Klykh had killed, 18 died in another place altogether, and a further eleven were not killed by gunfire, as the prosecution claims. Only one man had died, as per the prosecution’s story, of gunfire, but not from the type of gun that the investigators claim was used.
It was on the basis of this devastating assessment of the charges that in February 2016 Memorial declared both men political prisoners. It called the trial part of the unrelenting anti-Ukrainian campaign in the Russian state media and pronouncements from high-ranking Russian officials.