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Chilling details of how Russia-backed Donbas ‘republic’ instills terror

Halya Coynash

The Kremlin-backed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [DPR] has finally admitted to holding a Donetsk doctor and her husband prisoner almost two months after their disappearance led to a major search campaign.  Now those who took part in looking for the couple are feeling terrified that they too could be seized and face 12-20-year ‘sentences’ on surreal spying charges.

The ‘DPR’ report on December 8 differed little from the many others over the last three years.  There were the same assertions about spying for Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU], with the only ‘evidence’ - videoed ‘confessions’ to somewhat incomprehensible ‘spying’ from Olena Lazareva and her husband Andriy Kochmuradov.  Both sound as though they are reciting something they’ve been ordered to say, but diverge in an important detail. Lazareva says that they were ‘recruited’ by the SBU in  July 2016 while her husband mentions December that year, a totally different time of the year

Lazareva states that her task was to provide the SBU with the passport details, addresses, phone number and type of injury of patients in the neurosurgery emergency care ward of the Kalinin Regional Clinical Hospital, as well as information about the number of other people injured.  Her husband says that he was instructed to provide the database of the clients of the provider he worked with.  

The ‘spying’ is supposed to have come about because the couple were stopped by SBU officials at a Ukrainian government-controlled checkpoint after the officials found a car video recorded.  The SBU then threatened them with criminal prosecution if they didn’t agree to work for them. 

The videoed ‘confessions’ to collaboration with the SBU are extremely similar to numerous others over the last three years. This time, however, chilling detail has been provided by a journalist who has known both the supposed ‘spies’ for the last 20 years.  Dmitry Durnev once worked both as a doctor in the same neurosurgery ward and as the chief editor of the newspaper MK [Moskovsky Komsomolets]-Donbas.

Durnev explains that the couple disappeared on October 16, 2017, though not at all as the ‘DPR ministry of state security’ claimed.  Lazareva was clearly seized after passing through the checkpoints, and rang her husband, saying “there are some problems, you need to come to sort it out”.  Kochmuradov went and then both disappeared, together with their good-quality cars.

The ‘DPR security ministry and other enforcement bodies’ denied any involvement in the couple’s disappearance right up till 11 November.

Lazareva had worked in a hospital unit treating people with grave injuries and tumours for the last 27 years.  She and her husband were well-known, and former patients joined their family and colleagues in searching for the missing couple.  Durnev writes that many of those involved in the search are now ringing him, terrified of what it could mean for them that they approached others seeking help “for SBU spies”.  He adds that if the ‘DPR security ministry’ wanted to, they could come up with such an ‘SBU network’ that there wouldn’t be room in all the SIZO [remand prisons] and prisons for those detained.

Kochmuradov’s mother finally received an answer, dated 11 November, from the ‘DPR security ministry’.  This said only that the couple had been “detained under administrative regulations for 30 days according to a ‘DPR decree’ on fighting banditry and organized crimes.  This ‘decree’, Durnev explains, is used to imprison anybody for 30 days without any court order “as a lesson”.  He recalls that a well-known photographer was thus failed after a photo of a New Year tree was published by a Kyiv news agency with a caption that the ‘DPR’ militants objected to. 

They had hoped that Lazareva and Kochmuradov would also be released after 30 days, yet that period passed on November 16 and there was still no sign of them.

It was only on December 8 that the ‘DPR’ report, together with the videoed ‘confessions’ appeared on the ‘DPR’, pro-Russian and Russian websites.

Durnev points to some of the most glaring absurdities in the ‘spying story’, such as the claim that the couple were detained because of a car DVD and video recorder.  Any remaining car DVR were removed, often with brutal force, back in 2014 on both sides of the demarcation line. He says that only a person who had not left Donetsk for the last three years (“a DPR security ministry employee, for example”) would be capable of imagining a car driving up to a Ukrainian checkpoint with such a recorder.

The neurosurgical unit of the hospital where Lazareva worked obviously treats fighters with head injuries.  In both the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’, all information about those killed or wounded is top secret, and journalists avoid even touching on the subject.

This, Durnev notes, is in sharp contrast to the situation in the rest of Ukraine, where whole cities will declare a day of mourning for those soldiers killed in action. The videos of funerals are often shared on social media.  This, for example, is how Ukrainians honoured Ihor NovakOleh Yurdyha and Ivan Sotnyk .

The journalist writes that many doctors with pro-Ukrainian views remained in their posts believing that their profession called upon them to treat everybody and assuming that as unique specialists they would not be touched.  That confidence evaporated on December 8, and now many respected professors are terse on the telephone and ask that their comments not be made public.  “How many of them will leave Donetsk in the near future, I don’t know…”, Durnev says.  

The DPR report says that Lazareva and Kochmuradov face sentences of between 12 and 20 years.  The charge of ‘betraying their motherland’, Durnev says, will be "according to the Soviet criminal code from 1961".  He adds that the so-called ‘ministry of state security’ has initiated 45 such ‘cases’ on alleged ‘treason and spying’ just this year alone, with 14 people having received sentences of between 12 and 18 years.  "16 years for messages on social media ‘discipline’ those around them and demonstrate that this regime believes itself to be for ever”. 

It is not at all clear that Lazareva was targeted because she is a doctor working with war injuries.  Her seizure could have been circumstantial, or because her car caught some DPR ‘official’s’ fancy.  That is perhaps the most chilling part. Each such sentence arouses a wave of terror, with colleagues, friends and the public in general clear that anybody could end up in the same position as Lazareva and Kochmuradov

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