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Heartbreaking letter from Ukrainian pensioner sentenced by Russian occupiers to 12 years for ‘treason’

02.08.2021
Halya Coynash

Halyna Dovhopola PHoto Facebook

Former Kremlin hostage, Oleh Sentsov has posted a letter he just received from 66-year-old Halyna Dovhopola, whom a closed ‘court’ in Russian-occupied Crimea recently sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment for supposed ‘treason’.  The letter essentially confirms suspicions that the pensioner was targeted because of her pro-Ukrainian views and that she was held in total isolation, with only a state-appointed lawyer and without being allowed even the briefest visits from the Ukrainian consul.  While the years of Russian occupation have shown that in political cases, no amount of evidence can charge a largely predetermined sentence, a lawyer whom the person can trust and contact with people in Ukraine make it harder for the FSB to conceal the lack of any substance to the charges.  This is precisely why they hide prisoners like Dovhopola, and use all kinds of means to ensure that they only have access to state-appointed ‘lawyers’ who generally put pressure on them to ‘confess’ and certainly do not represent their interests.

Halyna was active on Facebook (under ‘Aleks Sevast’) and sends greetings to other former political prisoners whom she had clearly been in contact with.  The FSB certainly spend a lot of time ‘monitoring’ social media and it is quite possible that this was why she was first noticed.  Facebook friends were, in fact, the first to sound the alarm after her arrest, and it appears to have been thanks to them that Russia was not able to totally conceal the elderly woman’s whereabouts.  One of these contacts has noted that it was after they managed to organize a meeting with Marina Litvinovych, a human rights activist who could visit as part of a public monitoring commission in December 2020 that Dovhopola was hurriedly moved back to Sevastopol and a ‘trial’ held.

Halyna Dovhopola writes that she is a fourth generation Crimean and that even Russia did not try to deny her Ukrainian citizenship. She says that when she was thrown into a solitary cell at the Lefortovo SIZO [remand prison] in Moscow, she thought of Sentsov, of the 24 Ukrainian seamen also imprisoned in Lefortovo (after Russia fired at three Ukrainian naval boats near Crimea on 25 November 2018).  She sends greetings to the seamen and writes that she “tried not to shame Ukraine”. Despite being held in total isolation, she says, she knew that she would never “under any circumstances renounce or betray Ukraine”.

The letter is undated which is particularly worrying as she writes in it that there has already been “the show that goes by the name ‘appeal court’ and that she will soon be taken to a prison, without any contact even with the Ukrainian consulate in Moscow.  It is unclear even where this ‘appeal hearing’ took place, with this doubtless also because of the state-appointed ‘lawyer’.   

“If I survive (my age, after all), my path back is only to Ukraine.  I do not want to return to Crimea, I don’t want to see any more how it is rotting away, I watch and filter the news”.   She asks that during the next Normandy Format meeting, President Volodymyr Zelensky includes the issue of a prisoner exchange.  She promises from herself “active work for the good of Ukraine” and says that she “will try to survive”.

Dovhopola was one of at least four Ukrainians arrested soon after Russia released Sentsov, the 24 Ukrainian seamen and 10 other Ukrainian political prisoners, mainly in exchange for MH17 witness Volodymyr Tsemach, whom the Kremlin wanted to keep away from the Dutch and Ukrainian prosecutors. 

In each of the four cases (those of Dovhopola; Oleh Prykhodko; Ivan Yatskin and Denis Kashuk) the person held pro-Ukrainian views.  Little was known about Dovhopola, however she had given an interview to a Ukrainian website in May 2014. In it, she explained how in March, the Russian soldiers who had seized control told her daughter that if she did not selling Ukrainian media in her kiosk, they would set it alight with her aside. Dovhopola’s daughter had taken her then 9-year-old son and gone to Kyiv. Dovhopola herself said that she dreamed of being with them, but could not abandon her home in Sevastopol.

Although she was not named, the fact of her arrest on 29 November 2019 was widely reported in Russian and Russian-controlled media.  Dmitry Belik, a supposed Russian State Duma deputy from Sevastopol, claimed that she had been a civil servant working for the Black Sea Fleet.  The report asserted that from 2016 to 2018 there had been six arrests of supposed members of sabotage groups (including citizens of Russia and Ukraine). They were, so this version went, supposed to have “gathered information about the Russian security service, units of the Russian defence ministry, the Black Sea Fleet and planned terrorist acts.” 

She appears to have only had a state-appointed ‘lawyer’, which is most often the real aim behind FSB secrecy.  Since 2014, the FSB has on many occasions effectively abducted Ukrainians and taken them to Moscow where the only ‘lawyer’ they see is one appointed by the FSB.  Such lawyers are generally there to sign documents and try to persuade the detainee to admit to the charges, perhaps claiming that they will get a lighter sentence.  Such insistence of holding the elderly woman in full isolation and preventing her from receiving independent legal representation only compound distrust of this case.  The charges were under Article 275 of Russia’s criminal code (‘state treason’) with Dovhopola apparently accused of having worked for Ukraine’s Military Intelligence

The ‘trial’ began in February at the Russian-controlled Sevastopol City Court.  The prosecution claimed that Dovhopola had been “recruited by a representative of a foreign state to work covertly for the Military Intelligence Service of the Ukrainian Defence Ministry.”  She was alleged to have carried out “intelligence tasks aimed at gathering information about a separate aviation regiment of the Black Sea Fleet, its call-signals and other information linked with radio communications.  This was supposed to have included ‘state secrets, the passing on which could be used to harm the security of the Russian Federation”.

There was further cause of concern in the fact that the trial was before ‘judge’ Igor Kozhevnikov, a Russian citizen who was the presiding judge in the politically motivated ‘trial’ and 14-year sentences passed against Oleksiy Bessarabov and Volodymyr Dudka (see 14 year sentences for Russia to present Ukraine as the enemy in occupied Crimea

Dovhopola was sentenced on 24 March 2021 to 12 years’ imprisonment and a further year’s restriction of liberty.  It is unclear even how many hearings there had been, and now it seems that the ‘appeal’ passed without any information being revealed at all.  While Russia’s reports spoke of Dovhopola being ‘Russian’, it has made it next to impossible to live in occupied Crimea, receive healthcare, etc. without such citizenship.  That in no way alters the fact that Russia is in breach of international law by applying its own legislation in occupied Crimea, including by charging a Ukrainian living in her native Ukrainian Crimea with ‘state treason’ against the aggressor state which is illegally occupying her home.

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