Russia tries to break Ukrainian political prisoner by threatening his wife and children
The trial began on 20 April at the Russian-controlled Crimean High Court of Ivan Yatskin, a Ukrainian whom the country which in 2014 invaded and annexed his homeland has charged with ‘state treason through spying’. Yatskin’s lawyer, Nikolai Polozov has been forced to sign a non-divulgence agreement and can only provide the scantiest details about the course of the trial. He has, however, revealed more evidence that Yatskin is being placed under huge pressure.
Before an appeal hearing against his detention on 12 May, Yatskin told Polozov of the latest disturbing events on the eve of the May holidays. On 30 April, he was taken from his cell in the Simferopol SIZO [remand prison] for a ‘conversation’, without being informed who with. He was brought to the operational unit where he found an officer of the Russian police in occupied Crimea who also happens to be a figure in the criminal prosecution.
Polozov writes that it would seem ‘the conversation’ do not go as those who arranged it hoped since, on Yatskin’s return, the men with whom he had shared a cell for almost a month radically changed their attitude to him. They began threatening Yatskin himself, his wife and children, and his lawyer. Yatskin has now been moved to another cell, however Polozov points out that the question arises of how the management of the SIZO should have allowed a party to a criminal prosecution, albeit an enforcement officer, to have unimpeded access to the prison and to put pressure on somebody held there. Polozov states that he has demanded an investigation and also measures to ensure the safety of Yatskin’s family, though it remains to be seen whether any of the legitimate demands are actually implemented. Polozov reported earlier, while Yatskin was held at the FSB-controlled Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, that he had been placed under serious psychological pressure with this including threats of reprisals against his family. Yatskin has an underage child from his first marriage, and two small sons and a daughter with his common-law wife, Gulnara Kadyrova, with the daughter born after his arrest.
It is worth noting that, despite the secrecy around this case, the renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre has already declared Ivan Yatskin to be a political prisoner. In their report in February 2021, they assess the little that is known about the charges of ‘state treason via spying’ under Article 275 of Russia’s criminal code.
The initial arrest warrant makes it clear what he was charged with at the ‘investigation’ stage, with this very likely what the case is about. The investigator claims that from 14 February to 30 March 2018, on the instructions of Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU], Yatskin spoke with acquaintances from among law enforcement officers, “gathered personal data of officers of the police search and operations office in Crimea. And while on the territory of Ukraine from April to July 2016, via the Internet and also personal meetings with SBU officers, he passed on this personal data, constituting a state secret”.
In explaining why Yatskin should be considered a political prisoner, Memorial HRC examines what the alleged ‘state secrets’ could have consisted of. There is some suggestion that Yatskin may at some earlier stage served in the Ukrainian police force and could well have known former Ukrainian offices who later breached their oath and joined the Russian police. Although some information about search and operations activities does fall under the category of state secrets, this pertains to details about methods; forces; plans; results; financing; etc), as well as about current or even former secret agents.
Even if Yatskin himself served in the police force, this was before Russia’s annexation. Any information he had would have pertained to activities under Ukrainian law, and not applicable under Russian legislation. Memorial notes that total secrecy about this or that law enforcement unit is inadmissible and can only lead to legal abuses.
The FSB arrived at Yatskin’s home on 16 October 2019, carried out a search and took Yatskin away. The search was very clearly a formality with mobile phones not even taken away, although this would be obvious if Yatskin were genuinely believed to be passing on state secrets. The FSB were led by a Russian investigator, Sergei Makhnev, who has been involved in a number of political trials, especially involving Crimean Tatars.
His family knew nothing about where Yatskin had been taken until the ned of December 2019. Gulnara Kadyrova says that she had never encountered anything like this before, and she had no idea what to do. It was only after Kateryna, Yatskin’s daughter from his first marriage sent her a link to the initiative Crimean Solidarity that the situation changed, and Polozov, who has considerable experience in representing Russia’s Ukrainian political prisoners, took on the case. This is doubtless not to the FSB’s liking, and some of the pressure on Yatskin may be aimed at ‘persuading’ him to give up his lawyer.
Memorial notes that Yatskin’s rights were, at very least, violated over his total isolation for two months, with this making it hard for him to get legal representation and giving the FSB scope to exert pressure on him.
Memorial adds that Yatskin’s persecution is part of the constant anti-Ukrainian campaign run since the end of 2013 in the state media and seen in the statements of high-ranking officials in Russia. “One of the components of this campaign has been the initiating of criminal prosecutions against citizens publicly expressing a position on events in Ukraine that diverges from the official stand and directly against Ukrainians”. These include a large number of cases over so-called terrorism or spying.
Memorial states here, and elsewhere, that Russia is also in breach of international law for applying its legislation and prosecutions on occupied territory.
Yatskin has never concealed his pro-Ukrainian position. Memorial reports that he travelled to mainland Ukraine and took part in gathering things to help the Ukrainian Army fighting in Donbas. It is possible, Memorial adds, that he may have himself taken part in the fighting as a voluntary, and certainly he did receive treatment later for an injury. He also took part towards the end of 2015 in the Crimean Blockade.
Such an actively pro-Ukrainian position has been enough in other cases to get men arrested, and there seems every reason to believe that the charges against Ivan Yatskin are politically motivated.