war crimes in Ukraine

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Russian prison staff jailed for torturing 16-year-old Ukrainian to death

Halya Coynash
18 months after Vitaly Pop, who was just 16, died of appalling injuries on his first night in a Russian ‘corrective’ colony, two prison officers have received 11-year sentences, with eight others sentenced to terms from two and a half to five years

18 months after Vitaly Pop, who was just 16, died of appalling injuries on his first night in a Russian ‘corrective’ colony, two prison officers have received 11-year sentences, with eight others sentenced to terms from two and a half to five years. Although the other young victims reported that Vitaly had received particularly bad treatment because of his Ukrainian accent, this may well have simply served as a pretext, like others, for the savage beating. 

Although six other 15-17-year-olds had also received injuries, it was almost certainly only the fatal outcome that prompted action.  There were, even so, attempts at a cover-up.  The young lad’s death could not be concealed since an ambulance had finally been called, but the acting head of the prison order ordered that a report be written claiming that Pop had attacked a member of staff.

Vitaly and the six other lads who had been brought to Belorechensk Prison on Nov 24, 2015 were first forced to strip naked (in late November), and walk through a corridor where they were awaited by masked men who ordered them to do sit ups, then other exercises, and beat and kicked them, ostensibly if they weren’t doing them well enough. 

Their torturers had been instructed to avoid hitting the lads on the face so that there were no obvious traces.

One of the seven teenagers reported having been kicked in the stomach and chest, while also being beaten around the head.  The men accompanied their torture with questions like why the young lads were there and what kind of attitude they had. This continued for 40-50 minutes. 

Rights activist Pavel Chikov reported from the court on Friday that the young lads had been forced to urinate on each other.  They had been made to crawl into the toilet area and use a rag to mop up. Pop refused to go through this deliberate humiliation ritual, at which point the officers started beating and kicking him, including blows to the head.  He lost consciousness, and a hose was used to revive him. 

It was reported earlier that the initial brutality came from prison ‘educator’ Valery Zadneprovsky, but that he was joined in the latrine by Arsen Shamkhalov and Andrei Krivolapov.  It was the latter two who seized Vitaly and thrust his head into the toilet.

The other six teenagers have said that all three men, including Zadneprovsky continued hitting Vitaly around the head and chest.  Krivolapov is reported to have personally held his head and smashed it several times against the toilet basin.  The other lads cannot identify specific officials since they were masked, however one reports that an official jumped on Vitaly, while others say that two of the masked torturers took him by the neck and hit his head against the tiled floor.  One of the lads was ordered to urinate on Vitaly.  He says that he only pretended to do so.

Shamkhalov and Krivolapov were the only officers who were charged and convicted of inflicting fatal injuries.  Both were sentenced by Judge NIkolai Stohniy from the Belorechensk District Court to 11 years.  The prosecutor had asked for 13 years for Shamkhalov, but the judge decided that his small children constituted an extenuating circumstance.

Zadneprovsky’s mother burned her son’s clothing and shoes, and the investigators were only able to prove that Zadneprovsky had inflicted one blow (to the back).  It seems that he and the other men received much shorter sentences, from 3 years up.

Vitaly and 6 other 15-17-year-olds were brought to the prison on Nov 24, 2015.  The acting prison head Vladislav Ivanov had told the staff that four of the young lads “planned to disrupt the institution’s order” and he organized a team to break down their will through physical and psychological torture.  Like most of the men, Ivanov was charged only with ‘exceeding his duties’, although he not only initiated the torture, but also ordered that the ICTV cameras be turned off.  He was sentenced on May 12 to 5 years’ imprisonment.

The four young lads whom Ivanov had named did not include Pop.  Two of the officers claimed that they had been told that the young Ukrainian was a member of Right Sector, an ultra-nationalist Ukrainian organization which Russia has demonized.  There was nothing to back such a claim, and it is disturbing that any prison officers could have thought that this could somehow justify the young lad’s horrific treatment.

A 16-year-old lad died because he was sent to a brutal prison, though he himself was anything but a hardened criminal.  As reported earlier, he had been at school in the Transcarpathia region of Ukraine until the summer of 2015 when he and his mother joined his father who had been forced by poverty to seek employment in Kuban (Russia).  Vitaly was planning to enter a trade college, but was working with his parents.  His mother Svetlana Pop says that he had virtually no friends in Russia.  He didn’t drink and went running every evening.  

Vitaly had apparently gone into a shop in June 2015, hit the shopkeeper twice on the back of her head and grabbed a gold chain.  He did nothing with it and is said to have returned it to the investigators following his arrest. 

Vitaly never said anything to explain his actions, if these they were. Neighbours assumed he had got into a bad crowd, although there seems to have been no evidence of this.  Alexander Popkov and Andrei Sabunin represented Vitaly’s mother after his death, and know only that the lad had not denied the crime.

He was sentenced to 4.8 years, despite his age, the fact that his father was very ill, and lack of any previous conflict with the law.  He had been held in a SIZO [detention centre] after his arrest.  There he heard shocking stories about the treatment prisoners got at the Belorechensk ‘corrective prison colony’ and told his brother that he wasn’t sure if he would return.

He returned finally in a coffin, and even that was after the prison’s initial refusal to let his parents take their son’s body home to Ukraine.   It was probably thanks to Popkov’s involvement and publicity from human rights activists and the media that they were finally able to rebury Vitaly in his native Hrushove, in the Transcarpathia oblast.  That was on Dec 7, 2015.  Vitaly’s father died 9 days later, on Dec 16. 

The convicted men’s lawyers have said that they will appeal against the sentences, while Andrei Sabunin says that Pop’s family have a week to decide whether they think the sentences are too light. 

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