Tortured for TV Confessions. Russia’s first aborted ‘Ukrainian Crimea Saboteur plot’
Four men (at least) remain imprisoned a year after Russia tried to convince the world that they were part of a Ukrainian military plot to ‘encroach’ upon Ukrainian Crimea, which Russia is illegally occupying. The charges against Volodymyr Prysich and Redvan Suleymanov are quite different from the ‘confessions’ obtained while they were totally under Russian FSB control, without access to lawyers. Heavy pressure brought to bear against both Andriy Zakhtei and Yevhen Panov has resulted in Zakhtei now agreeing to give up his independent lawyer and admit guilt, in exchange for a smaller sentence. This must inevitably be viewed against his detailed testimony earlier of the circumstances of his arrest and the torture used to extract his confession. His earlier testimony corresponds to that given by Panov, who denies all the charges.
On August 10, 2016, Russia’s FSB [security service] claimed that it had foiled terrorist acts planned by the Ukrainian Defence Ministry’s military intelligence and targeting critically important parts of Crimea’s infrastructure. This was aimed, the FSB asserted, at destabilizing the situation in the run-up to Russia’s elections which were illegally held in occupied Crimea.
It asserted that there had been major incidents, with shelling from mainland Ukraine, during the nights from 6-7 and 7-8 August, with 2 Russians – an FSB officer and a soldier – killed. Although two Russians did die, there are independent reports suggesting that at least one of the men was killed in a drunken brawl. There was nothing to back the claims about the second night and supposed shelling from Ukraine.
Credibility was not enhanced by the fact that independent Internet sites had been blocked prior to the alleged events.
The claims were trumpeted by Russia’s leaders and state-controlled media, but based solely on videoed ‘confessions’ from four men, and a supposed ‘stockpile of weapons’ which could not be linked to Panov and Zakhtei.
The first video shown widely on Russian television was of Panov’s ‘confession’ and the accusations against him. The video was extremely sloppy, with the full moon visible in one shot indicating that it had been taken three weeks earlier when Panov was still working as a driver in Enerhodar [Zaporizhya oblast].
Panov, who shows signs of having been beaten, ‘confessed’ to working for Ukrainian military intelligence, and having been recruited for a group formed to carry out acts of sabotage in Crimea. He reeled off various names of people supposedly from Ukrainian intelligence. Neither he, nor any of the other men, mentioned each other.
Over the following days, two more ‘confessions’ were broadcast on Russian television.
Andriy Zakhtei, a taxi driver living in Yevpatoria, also spoke of having directly fulfilled tasks from Ukrainian military intelligence in transporting saboteurs and their things around Crimea.
On August 12, Redvan Suleymanov also stated on a video broadcast on Russian TV that he had been recruited by Ukrainian military intelligence in October 2015. He was supposed to find places to plant bombs in the Simferopol Airport and Bus Station, with the criteria being: the possibility of hiding them and large number of people around.
He was also instructed to make a dummy model of an explosive device, place it somewhere and phone the police, remaining at the airport to study and photograph how the police behaved. This was what he was doing (with a camera!) when, according to this account, he was arrested on July 30, 2016.
The last person whose arrest was reported was the first to be tried and sentenced – for something else altogether.
On August 22, 2016, in a report on Russian TV claiming that the so-called ‘sabotage in Crimea’ had been planned at a very high level, the confession was broadcast of Volodymyr Prysich, a truck driver from Kharkiv.
Reciting his ‘confession’ as though reading from a script, Prysich says that he was recruited by a military intelligence officer called Oleh, codename Musa. He was supposed to follow the movement of technology, and pay attention to its type, any marks identifying it and number plates identifying the region. He had been in Crimea 8 times, he says, up till August, and passed photographs of military technology, etc. to the military intelligence man 5 times.
Prysich was sentenced on May 18, 2017 to 3 years’ imprisonment on a charge of possession of a narcotic substance.
In court Prysich denied all charges. He said that he had been seized by masked men in Sevastopol at around 11.30 a.m. on August 13, 2016, and taken to a building for ‘questioning’. The ‘interrogation’ was highly specific: he was asked a question and then given an electric shock and warned to think carefully about his answer.
In his final words to the court, Prysich stated that the charge of possession and transportation of drugs had been fabricated by the FSB after the charge of spying collapsed. He noted that the package with drugs had ‘appeared’ in his van half a day after he was seized.
He told the court that the ‘investigator’ had himself filled out the protocol with the supposed confusion, and forced Prysich to sign it to avoid the more serious charge of spying. The appeal hearing is scheduled for August 7.
Suleymanov was sentenced on August 10 to 1 year and 8 months imprisonment, on a charge which was vastly removed from the accusations of involvement in what Russia claimed was ‘Ukrainian state terrorism”. He was accused only of making a false bomb threat, though Natalya Skholnaya, ‘judge’ at the Zheleznodorozhny District Court, chose to accept the unsubstantiated claim that this had resulted in an incredible three and a half million roubles damages. This was despite compelling grounds for believing that, if not the charge itself, then the supposed damages were always aimed at hiding vast amounts of money siphoned off by corrupt officials
Panov, Zakhtei and Prysich have all alleged torture, with Panov and Zakhtei both giving harrowing details and saying that they were willing to sign anything to stop the pain, inflicted through electric shocks, including to their genitals.
Both men were long prevented from seeing lawyers, with this effectively only achieved after the European Court of Human Rights’ intervention on Panov’s behalf.
Since then, they have been held in very bad conditions and placed under ongoing pressure to renounce their lawyers.
This recently worked with Zakhtei, who agreed to admit guilt. This means that the FSB is no longer required to provide ‘proof’.
It does not negate the detailed accounts Zakhtei has given of the torture and his earlier retraction of the confession.
Moreover Panov, presented on Russian TV as ’the organizer of terrorist acts’ remains in prison also, firm in his rejection of all the charges, and in his account of the torture that was so unendurable that he lied about a plot that never was to get them to stop.
The squalid incompetence of this FSB case is damning, though, unfortunately, the target audience in Russia and occupied Crimea, who were assured that the FSB was ’protecting them’ from ’Ukrainian terrorists’ will learn nothing of that.