Russia releases Ukrainian abducted & tortured for a ‘confession’ discrediting Crimean Tatar leaders
Ukrainian political prisoner Oleksandr Steshenko is safely back in mainland Ukraine, after being imprisoned in Russian-occupied Crimea on politically-motivated charges since early April 2018. He was fully entitled to early release, but there was concern till the last minute that Russia would prevent it, as it has in the case of other Ukrainian political prisoners. The fact that Steshenko was freed suggests that he was only really needed for a televised ‘confession’ which he has now confirmed was tortured out of him, through beatings, electric shocks and asphyxiation.
Steshenko was 27 when he disappeared on 11 April 2018 after travelling from his native Kharkiv to occupied Crimea. Nothing more was heard from him after he rang his mother and said that he had been stopped by Russian border guards. The pretext then given was that the FSB doubted that he was the person on the photo in his passport – the passport he had used to enter Crimea on several occasions since Russia’s invasion and annexation.
On 14 April, the FSB border administration in Simferopol confirmed that Steshenko was in their custody, but would not allow a lawyer to see him, with this repeated on 16 April. At that stage, the lawyer was given the same reason for his detention that Steshenko mentioned when he last spoke with his mother on 11 April.
By 24 April, a new excuse had emerged. On that day lawyer Edem Semedlyaev reported that the new claim was that Steshenko had been detained for smoking at the bus station, with the term of administrative arrest due to end at 22.00 that evening.
Steshenko then vanished outside the remand prison, being taken away by unidentified individuals. The story of his administrative arrest heard by the lawyers trying to find him changed again, with it also claimed that he had rejected the services of a lawyer.
It was not, however, explained where he was. His whereabouts remained unknown until 21 May when an FSB video was shown on Russian television in which Steshenko ‘confessed’ to involvement in an ‘extremist group’ supposedly created by the Head of the Mejlis, or self-governing body, of the Crimean Tatar people which Russia has, in flagrant violation of international law, banned. The alleged ‘plot’ was made public just days after Ukraine approached the International Court of Justice asking why Russia was continuing to flout the Court’s direct order to end its internationally condemned ban of the Mejlis.
There was absolutely nothing to back the FSB’s story, except the ‘confession’ of a young man detained on a totally different pretext, then abducted before his lawyer was able to speak to him and held incommunicado for almost a month. The FSB claimed that an ‘extremist group’ had been started up by Erol Veliev, an adviser to veteran Crimean Tatar leader and Ukrainian MP, Mustafa Dzhemilev. Veliev was supposed to have been taking orders from the current Head of the Mejlis, Refat Chubarov. The ‘extremist group’ had allegedly been formed in Kharkiv together with two ‘boxers’ – Oleksandr Steshenko and Oleksandr Tretyakov.
These supposed ‘extremists’ were purportedly “planning to carry out crimes motivated by political animosity aimed at frightening pro-Russian Crimean Tatars and heightening inter-ethnic tension in Crimea”. In January 2018, they were supposed to have carried out an arson attack , with the use of Molotov cocktails, to the home of the Mufti of Crimea Emirali Ablaev, one of the few prominent Crimean Tatars who chose in 2014 to collaborate with the Russian occupation regime.
The FSB asserted that the supposed members of this ‘extremist group’ were promised 500 dollars for each ‘action’ in Crimea.
Steshenko then disappeared from sight again, though there was a reminder of his fate and the alleged ‘confession’ in July after the Dzhemiliev family’s driver Akhtem Mustafaev managed to flee to mainland Ukraine a week after his ‘interrogation’ by the FSB and alleged torture in Crimea. Mustafaev spoke of his experiences at a press conference with Mustafa Dzhemilev on 10 July. He had been interrogated about his trips to mainland Ukraine, about his relations with Dzhemilev and Veliev, and about the alleged arson attack of the home of the Mufti of Crimea (Ablaev). All of this was accompanied by beating as well as forms of torture and threats that “nobody would find him” (more details here).
The attempt to discredit Mejlis leaders appears to have come to nothing, at least with respect to Steshenko. He was convicted on 28 July of the charge under Article 167 § 2 of Russia’s criminal code (deliberate destruction or damage to somebody else’s property as an act of hooliganism, via arson, explosion or other publicly dangerous means, or causing a person’s death through carelessness or other grave consequences.) More detail is not available.
The sentence was passed by Yuri Hryhorovych Hulevych [or, in Russian Gulevich], a former Ukrainian judge who betrayed his oath to Ukraine, with the lawyer reported to have represented Steshenko, Oksana Akulenko, having previously also taken part in at least two other politically motivated cases.
Russia is continuing to hold well over 100 Ukrainian political prisoners, most of them from occupied Crimea.