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When Russia shouted that Ukraine had attacked Crimea: A tale of torture and fabrication

13.08.2021
Halya Coynash

Confessions produced on Russian state TV ii, Andriy Zakhtei, Photo TASS

It is five years since Russia tried, and failed, to convince the world that Ukraine’s Military Intelligence had been thwarted in carrying out ‘terrorist attacks’ in occupied Crimea.  The lies were absurd, but there was nothing at all comical about the savage torture and other illegal means that the Russian FSB used to fabricate the first of several ‘Ukrainian saboteur plots’.  One of the political prisoners seized in the first week of August 2016, Andriy Zakhtei, remains in prison to this day, and Russia has since used similar tactics against many other Ukrainians.

On 10 August 2016, Russia’s Foreign Ministry claimed that the FSB had foiled terrorist acts planned by the Ukrainian Defence Ministry’s military intelligence and targeting critically important parts of Crimea’s infrastructure.  The attacks were supposedly aimed at destabilizing the situation in the run-up to Russia’s elections which were being illegally held in occupied Crimea.  Russia’s President Vladimir Putin also claimed that Ukraine was “turning to terrorism”, and cited the FSB in asserting that two deaths of Russian military men had been murder committed by Ukraine’s Security Service.

It does appear that two men – an FSB officer and a soldier – died, however independent reports suggested that at least one of the men had been killed in a drunken brawl.

There was no empirical evidence to back Russia’s claim that there had been shelling from mainland Ukraine during the nights from 6-7 and 7-8 August 2016.  It also seemed suspicious that independent Internet sites had been blocked prior to the alleged events.   

In fact, the only ‘evidence’ came from videoed ‘confessions’ made by four men, and a ‘stockpile of weapons’ without any fingerprints or DNA of the two men alleged to have used it –  Andriy Zakhtei and Yevhen Panov.

The first video shown widely on Russian television was of Panov’s ‘confession’ and the accusations against him. As well as signs that Panov had been beaten, there were also sloppy mistakes such as a shot with a full moon, meaning that it had to have been taken three weeks earlier.

Panov ‘confessed’ to working for Ukrainian military intelligence, and having been recruited for a group formed to carry out acts of sabotage in Crimea. 

Two days later, a video was shown with Zakhtei, a taxi driver living in Yevpatoria, also saying that he had transported ‘saboteurs’ and their things around Crimea for Ukraine’s Military Intelligence.

On 12 August, Ridvan Suleimanov also stated on a video broadcast on Russian TV that he had been recruited by Ukrainian military intelligence in October 2015.  He was supposed to find places to plant bombs in the Simferopol Airport and Bus Station, with the criteria being: the possibility of hiding them and a large number of people around. He was later jailed for 20 months on effectively different charges.

On August 22, 2016, in a report on Russian TV claiming that the so-called ‘sabotage in Crimea’ had been planned at a very high level, the confession was broadcast of Volodymyr Prysich, a truck driver from Kharkiv. He was sentenced on May 18, 2017 to 3 years on a totally different charge.  He denied all charges, and said that the first confession had been tortured out of him.

In not one of these ‘confessions’ did the men mention each other and even the FSB only tried to create a joint ‘case’ involving Panov and Zakhtei.

In an interview for Krym.Realii on the fifth anniversary of these ‘confessions’, Olha Skripnik, Head of the Crimean Human Rights Group, said that this Panov and Zakhtei case launched a new stage in the FSB’s persecution of Ukrainians in occupied Crimea. Although far from being the first politically-motivated persecution, the case was marked by a quite different scale of falsification.  “These cases were totally fabricated and based, in the main, on torture, with the traces [of such torture] broadcast by the FSB itself via their staged video supposed interrogations. “

This new direction began in 2016, with at least 17 Ukrainians thus far behind bars in such cases. Skripnik points also to the prosecution of Prysich, and the fact that, even after they tortured him into producing a ‘confession video’, Prysich resisted and refused to cooperate.  It was after this that they claimed to have found drugs in his car.  He was sentenced on 18 May 2017 only for possession of drugs and in court denied all charges, describing the electric shocks used to extract his ‘confession’ and the appearance of the package with drugs in his van a full day after he had been seized.

Skripnik notes that there is effectively no way for any of those arrested on such charges to defend themselves.  This, however, is true of all Russia’s Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners.  .

The FSB had focused particularly on Panov and needed to keep his ‘confession’ intact, which they attempted to do by preventing him from seeing an independent lawyer. It was only after the European Court of Human Rights got involved that Panov was finally, after two months, allowed a first, very brief, visit from his lawyer.  He had time to retract his testimony and explain that it had been extracted through torture, with his lawyer finding scars on his wrists and multiple bruises which had still not healed.

Although less was heard about Zakhtei, it soon became clear that both men had been subjected to horrific levels of torture until they agreed to give ‘confessions’.  In formal complaints to Russia’s Investigative Committee, both men spoke of beatings, the use of electric currents and other torture methods applied to their genitals.

Zakhtei said that the electric shocks had been applied for two days, as well as a kind of clamp attached to both his buttocks and genitals causing such excruciating pain that at times he had lost consciousness.  Like Panov, he had had a bag kept over his head all the time, so that he could not see his torturers. By 11 August, he was willing to confess to anything demanded of him.  

Russia reacted to the men’s retraction of their ‘confessions’ by first taking them to the Lefortovo Prison in Moscow, and then returning them to occupied Crimea and holding them in horrific conditions.  The aim was to put maximum pressure on them to renounce their independent lawyers and to plead guilty, almost certainly offering a shorter sentence if they did.

Zakhtei was 42 with a wife and small daughter and had been living with them in Crimea, unlike Panov whose family was safely in mainland Ukraine.  Eventually, Zakhtei agreed to admit to the charges and be ‘tried’ behind closed doors.  Although sentences do tend to be particularly severe where men have retracted ‘confessions’ and deny all the charges, any promise made to Zakhtei was broken.  He was sentenced on 16 February 2018 to six and a half years’ imprisonment, as well as to a steep fine.

Six months later, on 13 July 2018, Panov, who insisted on his innocence, was sentenced to eight years. 

Panov was one of the 35 Ukrainian political prisoners and POWs whom Russia released on 7 September 2019, mainly in exchange for MH17 witness / suspect, Volodymyr Tsemakh. 

Despite initial upbeat noises, there have been no releases since then and Andriy  Zakhtei remains imprisoned.

So too are the main three victims of the FSB’s second attempt at a ‘Ukrainian saboteur plot’.  This was no less plausible than the first, but the FSB did learn from its mistakes and on 9 November 2016 targeted three men who knew each other well. These were two internationally known experts on the Black Sea Fleet, Dmytro Shtyblikov and Oleksiy Bessarabov and retired Ukrainian military officer Volodymyr Dudka.

See: 14 year sentences for Russia to present Ukraine as the enemy in occupied Crimea

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