Ukrainian political prisoner faces huge sentence for not ‘confessing’ to Russian FSB ‘Crimea sabotage’ plot
Russia’s FSB are most brutal with those political prisoners who refuse, even under torture and threats, to ‘confess’ to non-existent crimes. This was seen with Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov whose FSB torturers warned him from the outset that he would get 20 years and rot in a Russian prison, if he didn’t provide the ‘testimony’ they demanded. He refused, was sentenced to 20 years and sent to the harshest and most isolated prisons in the Russian Federation. It appears likely that the same is planned for Yevhen Panov, the Zaporizhya driver who was seized and tortured in August 2016, and then held for two months without access to a lawyer.
Panov turns 41 on 6 June, his second birthday held in the Simferopol SIZO [remand prison] in occupied Crimea. His brother Ihor Kotelyanets has spoken of the ways Russia has tried to force Panov to cooperate and of the farcical ‘trial’ which began in April this year.
So far 46 prosecution ‘witnesses’ have been questioned, of whom Kotelyanets believes, some 80% are likely FSB employees. He says that about half of them are ‘secret witnesses’. Some of the others have been brought to ‘court’ merely to testify what kind of damage could have been caused by the allegedly planned acts of sabotage.
There has been intense pressure on his brother during the almost two years that he has been imprisoned. Kotelyanets explains that Panov was directly told that if he made a deal with the investigators and ‘confessed to being a Ukrainian terrorist’, they’d get him a 5-year sentence somewhere close to Ukraine. If not, he’d get a sentence like Sentsov’s, of 20 years and be sent very far away.
“Yevhen did not agree to any deal and we therefore fear that he’ll be sentenced to the maximum 20-year term”.
Panov is charged with planning acts of sabotage in Crimea as part of a group of saboteurs, as well as with “smuggling ammunition across the customs border of the Customs Union”, with four articles of the Russian criminal code listed (Article 281 § 2a for the planning acts of sabotage; Article 226.1 § 3 and 222 § 3 over the alleged movement and storage of ammunition, as well 30 § 1, and 3 – committing or attempting a crime).
He is now accused of having planned acts of sabotage on civilian and military sites in Crimea, with these supposedly including a water reservoir; a Russian military unit; a ferry crossing; a chemical factory and plans to blow up Pantsir C1 self-propelled anti-aircraft military weapon systems..
The then 39-year-old from Zaporizhya worked as a driver for the Zaporizhya Nuclear Power Plant in Enerhodar, but had also responded to Russia’s invasion of Crimea and military aggression in Donbas by active work as a volunteer, both in civil defence for his city and in helping the Ukrainian army.
On August 6, 2016, Panov responded to a phone call, seemingly from a fellow volunteer, asking him to help evacuate a family from Russian-occupied Crimea who were in danger. This, however, his family only discovered much later, after he disappeared.
The first they learned of his whereabouts was on August 10 when 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 taking place in occupied Crimea.
The FSB 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. Scepticism was only exacerbated by the fact that the occupation regime had blocked various independent Internet sites prior to the alleged events.
The video with Panov’s ‘confession’ and, supposedly, his and Zakhtei’s stockpile of weapons was very sloppily done. One scene for example showed a full moon which meant it must have been shot at least three weeks earlier. An independent forensic analysis found no traces to suggest that Panov and Zakhtei had ever touched the alleged stockpile.
A video produced by the FSB was shown widely on state-controlled Russian media. On it, Panov is seen ‘confessing’ to working for Ukrainian military intelligence and saying that he was invited to Kyiv and told that a group was being formed for acts of sabotage in Crimea. He reels off several names, none of them the people he was allegedly caught with, and says that they had come to Crimea together to decide on targets for the acts of sabotage and had chosen the ferry crossing, an oil handling terminal, a helicopter regiment and chemical factory.
On the video, Panov looked as though he had been beaten and also as though he was saying what he had been instructed to say.
It was therefore of immense concern that the FSB prevented the lawyer Panov’s family employed from seeing his client. At one stage they produced a scrap of paper, with a typed statement, allegedly from Panov, rejecting the lawyer’s services. The paper was unsigned, and his family, by now seriously worried, were helped by a human rights group to apply to the European Court of Human Rights. The latter demanded information from Russia regarding the origin of Panov’s bruises, etc. and confirmation that he had been allowed to see the lawyer his family had chosen.
Following this communication from ECHR, and after two full months of total isolation, Panov was able to briefly meet with the lawyer. He immediately retracted all testimony, confirming that it had been obtained under torture. He has since described the torture methods, which form part of his application to ECHR, with these including severe beating; being suspended in handcuffs; mock executions; electric shocks and clamps applied to his genitals.
Both Panov and Zakhtei were moved to Moscow shortly after that brief meeting and placed under heavy pressure to give up their independent lawyers. They refused and were soon moved back to Crimea, and the Simferopol SIZO [remand unit] where the conditions are in themselves a form of torture.
The mounting pressure and threats of a much worse sentence if he didn’t comply finally prompted Zakhtei to agree to cooperate. He pleaded ‘guilty’ and gave up his lawyer, yet a Russian-controlled court in Crimea still sentenced him on 16 February 2018 to 6.5 years imprisonment.
It is likely that Zakhtei’s ‘confession’ will be used to claim that the charges against him and Panov have been ‘proven’.
In fact, nothing is proven, and a telling detail is that of the four men accused of involvement in a supposed plot which they were shown on Russian TV ‘confessing’ to, one - Redvan Suleymanov – ended up accused of something only slightly linked to the original ‘confession’, while Volodymyr Prysich was sentenced on May 18, 2017 to 3 years’ imprisonment on the totally different charge of possession of a narcotic substance. Like Panov and Zakhtei, he asserts that he gave his original ‘confession’ under torture.