Ukrainians tortured and imprisoned in Donbas for supporting Ukraine, with Russia blocking their release
The Russian proxy ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’ [D-LPR] are holding a huge number of Ukrainians whom they claim to be ‘Ukrainian Security Service [SBU] spies’. According to Dmytro Durnev, a journalist originally from Donetsk, many of these supposed ‘SBU spies’ are simply citizens loyal to Ukraine. Many have been savagely tortured and imprisoned for comments or information, including about Russian military movements, on Twitter or other social media. The hostages include several men and women with urgent medical conditions, yet there seems no immediate prospect for any exchange of prisoners.
The Minsk Agreements envisage an exchange of prisoners on an ‘all for all’ basis. This has never happened, and at negotiations within the Minsk format, the subject of an exchange is not even being discussed. Durnev explains that the official excuse for this is the demand that Ukraine ‘wipes the slate clean’ on any prisoners released as part of previous exchanges. This would presumably have to include five suspected Maidan killers and the three men convicted by a first court of the terrorist attack in Kharkiv in 2015 that killed four people, including a child. The demand is hypocritical given that all of the released Ukrainian hostages understand all too well the danger that they would face were they to return to occupied Donbas. Nor has Russia revoked any of the sentences or ‘criminal proceedings’ against the political prisoners it freed in September 2019.
Durney is surely correct that this is, in any case, a pretext and that the real reason lies elsewhere. Russian President Vladimir Putin is doubtless angry over the rebuttal of attempts to stage an exchange in January 2021 as a means of improving the rating of his crony, the pro-Russian Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk and over the criminal charges that Medvedchuk is now facing. The Kremlin’s dissatisfaction does, however, go even deeper, as the Deputy Head of Putin’s Presidential Administration Dmitry Kozak made clear in a recent interview for a French publication. During the months before Volodymyr Zelensky became Ukraine’s President and soon afterwards, they received “initiatives and proposals on regulating the conflict, and also on reinstating good-neighbourly relations with Russia.”
Russia had attempted to foist direct negotiations between Ukraine and D-LPR militants, thus legitimizing entities that are, in fact, entirely controlled by Russia and for a time there seemed a danger that Zelensky’s Administration would agree to this. There were huge protests and eventually Zelensky formally rejected the idea (see: Russia rages as plans for legitimizing its proxy Donbas “republics” are foiled ).
Official Ukrainian (SBU) figures put the number of hostages in occupied Donbas at 296. Most (219) are held in ‘DPR’, with 77 in ‘LPR’. The overall figure includes 44 POWs and 30 women. The real number, unfortunately, may well be much higher as information is difficult to obtain and the relatives of people seized are often afraid that publicity will make the situation worse.
Tortured, often in the notorious ‘Izolyatsia’ secret prison, and imprisoned for Ukraine (press the hyperlinks for more information)
Now 70, Atamanchuk was seized by ‘DPR’ militants, together with his wife and son Oleh, during the night from 4-5 September 2019 . Atamanchuk had never concealed his pro-Ukrainian position and a former hostage has recounted hearing the elderly man, as he was being taken for ‘interrogation’, call out “Slava Ukraini” [‘Glory to Ukraine!”]. His wife and son were finally released, however the torture Oleh had been subjected to had clearly taken a huge toll and he died within the year, aged just 49. Atamanchuk was later ‘sentenced’ to 17 years’ imprisonment for supposed ‘spying for Ukraine’. Even the one meeting during the entire period of his imprisonment with a lawyer was held in the presence of two guards and was also videoed.
Atamanchuk’s release is almost certainly a matter of life or death. As a former miner, Atamanchuk already had many serious health issues, including Bekhterev’s disease (a form of chronic rheumatic inflammation). According to his daughter, after torture and in the appalling conditions of militant imprisonment, this condition is progressing, and he is also suffering ever-more frequent heart palpitations and often loses consciousness.
A Makiyivka doctor, the 42-year-old was seized by the so-called ‘DPR ministry of state security’ on 10 July 2019 and taken to ‘Izolyatsia’ where she was held, and certainly tortured, for several months, before being imprisoned in Donetsk SIZO [remand prison] No. 5 Stanislav Aseyev, writer, blogger and former hostage explained back in January 2021 that Statsenko urgently needs an operation on her spine. According to Ukraine’s Human Rights Ombudsperson, Lyudmila Denisova, the situation is becoming critical, with Statsenko’s chronic spinal disease causing problems for the static and dynamic functioning of the spine. According to Aseyev, she was taken prisoner after the militants gained access to her social media accounts.
35-year-old Oksana Parshyna was in her third month when she took the fateful decision to try to reach Donetsk and transfer into her sister’s name the ownership papers for the land on which her home, destroyed during the battle for Donetsk Airport, stands. She was seized on 14 May, with the militants now accusing her of ‘spying for Ukraine’.
According to Durnev, the militants recently allowed Parshyna to be admitted to a civilian hospital for proper tests. These found that her pregnancy is at risk, yet the militants are still refusing to release her.
Seized on 15 July 2017 and subjected to torture at Izolyatsia for the first 10 months, Matiushenko was ‘sentenced’ by a ‘DPR’ pseudo-court on 28 March 2019 to 10 years for supposedly collaborating with Ukraine’s SBU. Matiushenko, who was 52 when seized, had never concealed his pro-Ukrainian views. He is one of at least two hostages (together with Olena Fedoruk) from Kalmiuske (formerly Komsomolske), a city 50 kilometres south of Donetsk and Ilovaisk and just over 30 kilometres from the border with Russia. Witnesses are adamant that much of the shelling they experienced in 2014 came from the Russian Federation, and that after the battle near Ilovaisk (at the end of August 2014), the Russian military appeared in the city, bringing their own technology. It is very likely because of all that Russia has to hide about its direct military engagement in the conflict and the evidence of it at places like Kalmyuske, that both Matiushenko and Fedoruk remain imprisoned to this day.
Olena’s two adult daughters left after Kalmiuske was seized, but she remained to care for her bedridden mother. It became impossible to continue running her flower shop, and she found work at the militants’ headquarters, where she was responsible for making inventories, for example, of chairs, tables and beds which were taken to local fighters and Russian military. She was arrested on 25 July 2017, and ‘sentenced’ on 16 August 2019 to 11 years’ imprisonment. The charges here and below, unless otherwise stated, were of ‘spying for Ukraine’.
is 50 and suffers from epilepsy. A senior researcher at the Horlivka Art Museum until 2014 and the war, she and her daughter, Isabella, left Donbas as soon as Russian and Russian-controlled militants seized Horlivka. They settled in Odesa, however Piekh’s elderly mother remained in occupied Debaltseve, with her elder daughter. Her mother suffered a stroke in 2015, and needed treatment and long-term rehabilitation for which Piekh and her daughter organized the money. It was during a visit to see her mother in August 2018 that she was seized by the so-called ‘DPR ministry of state security’. It is known that she was subjected to beatings and torture (asphyxiation and electric shocks), and has also constantly faced anti-Semitic abuse. She was sentenced on 27 March 2020 to 13 years for ‘spying and treason’. As Isabella Piekh notes, her mother is the citizen of only one country – Ukraine, and it is only Ukraine, her motherland, that she could, but would not, betray.
Shevandin is a very well-known sportsman from Debaltseve who was seized by DPR militants over five years ago. The militants are refusing to give any information about his whereabouts, however the car he was driving is known to have been used by at least the Russian commander, ‘Zarya’, responsible for the seizure.
Shevandin had left Debaltseve with his family after it was seized by the DPR militants (with heavy Russian military involvement). Unfortunately, they learned that his elderly mother had insisted on returning, and took the fatal step of returning to try to ensure that she was safe. Larisa Shevandin says that very few people knew of his plans, and she has to suspect that somebody turned out to be an informer as the DPR militants were clearly waiting for him when he arrived at a checkpoint in occupied Donbas on 1 May 2015. The family know only that Shevandin himself was taken on 3 May to Donetsk with the militants accusing him of spying for Ukraine. His captors have refused to give any information about where he is imprisoned and have not included him on the exchange list.
Stavtsev, who turned 35 on 2 June 2021, Stavstev was seized by the so-called ‘DPR ministry of state security’ at his home, late in the evening of 6 October 2017 and was held and tortured for some time at Izolyatsia. During a ‘one-day trial’ on 18 February 2019, Stavtsev was ‘sentenced’ to 14 years, with the militants claimed that he had ‘spied for Ukraine and created a terrorist organization’.
Tortured for tweets
An environmental chemist, Yurchak was 40 when seized by ‘DPR’ militants on 9 November 2017. It is now known that she was held at ‘Izolyatsia’ and doubtless tortured for almost a year, however at the time she simply disappeared and her parents had no idea what had happened to her.
Although the 15-year sentence received on 26 March 2020 was, as usual, for supposed ‘spying, it seems Yurchak was also accused of ‘insulting’ top militants, whose vehicles she refers to as ‘orc-mobiles’. From back in 2014, Yurchak was active on Twitter, making no secret of her pro-Ukrainian views and writing honestly about what she saw. She openly wrote, for example, about where the shelling was coming from and the direction in which military technology was being transported.
Almost all that we know about him and about Yuri Shapovalov comes from videoed ‘confessions’. Although the ‘sentence’ of 14 years is for the standard ‘spying for the SBU’, 31-year-old Podvezko appears to have been charged over alleged communications with a Twitter user whom both Russia and its proxy ‘republics’ do have cause to hate. Necro Mancer @666_mancer is one of the citizen journalists who has provided invaluable information about Russian military and pro-Russian losses in occupied Donbas; military movements, etc. He seemingly lives in Donetsk and began documenting the military movements and military losses that Russia has tried very hard to conceal. In their ‘prosecution’ of Podvezko, the DPR militants claim that Necro Mancer works for the SBU and that Podvezko passed him information.
The 56-year-old neuropathologist was ‘sentenced’ in DPR in April 2020 to 13 years’ imprisonment for posts on Twitter which were claimed to “destabilize the situation” in the unrecognized ‘republic’. He is known to have been held and tortured for some time at Izolyatsia. Although Shapovalov’s Twitter account was clearly hijacked by the militants following his seizure, the tweets from before January 2018 can still be seen here at Залишенець Донецький @relictDon. They show a person with clear pro-Ukrainian views and a deep antagonism to ‘Russian world’ ideology and the devastating impact this has had on Donetsk.
The so-called ‘DPR ministry of state security’ arrived at the flat the then 20-year-old shared with his mother on 10 April 2020, and took both the young man and his computer away. He was almost certainly targeted for the passionately pro-Ukrainian views he expresses on social media. There are particular concerns in his case, as Bohdan has a congenital heart defect.
Bohdan was seized, together with several other teenagers, in September 2016 and forced to give videoed ‘confessions’ of having carried out tasks for Ukraine’s SBU [Security Service]. Bohdan was just 17 at the time, with the youngest lads – 15. At the time of the last major exchange of prisoners in December 2019, the militants offered to ‘pardon’ the young men, but only on condition that they ‘repented’ and agreed not to leave occupied Donbas. Kovalchuk, however, refused, saying that he wanted to go to government-controlled Ukraine. Probably as punishment for this, he was not included in the last, April, exchange, and is spending a fourth year imprisoned, with the 10-year ‘sentence’ still standing.
There is real concern as to 30-year-old Sinchenko’s safety after news of his capture by the DPR militants on 29 June 2020. The young man, who was originally from Makiyivka, but was living in the Kherson oblast, was first taken prisoner when he returned to occupied Donbas to reinstate medical documents. The militants accused him of blowing up cigarette kiosks, and he was savagely tortured, including with the use of electric shocks, asphyxiation and being suspended for several hours by handcuffs.
He was released in the exchange of hostages and POWs on 27 December 2017, but later returned to Donbas, seemingly to continue partisan activities against the Russian proxy ‘republic’. He was seized again and savagely beaten in October 2019, with the so-called ‘DPR ministry of state security’ accusing him of involvement in the blowing up of a Donetsk radio tower in protest at the widespread use of torture in the DPR’s illegal prisoners.
Dmytro Sidelnikov, a PE lecturer at a Donetsk institute was seized on 27 January 2020 and remains imprisoned to this day. His family still don’t know exactly what the militants are accusing him of, however his brother, Denis, says that Sidelnikov was allowed to ring once and told them that he had been arrested for spying, and had said something about an exchange and mentioned Twitter.
Shelest is a lecturer in information technology at the Donetsk National Technical University. He was taken from the home in Donetsk that he shared with his mother on 13 September 2017 and ‘sentenced’ on 17 May, 2019 to 11 years for supposed ‘spying’. He has been held since then at Prison Colony No. 32 in Makiyivka,
Shabolda was seized by the ‘DPR’ militants on 24 June 2019 and has been imprisoned ever since. The militants not only tortured him, but threatened to bring his two small children in and cut their heads off if he did not ‘confess’ to spying. Shabolda’s wife and the children are now safely on government-controlled territory, but the 32-year-old remains imprisoned.
Boranov was 31, married, with a 7-year-old son, Platon, when he was seized by DPR militants on 9 September 2017. He had been a soldier in Ukraine’s National Guard for a year and a half, and according to his mother, took part in the liberation of Sloviansk in early July 2014. In September 2017, he was not formally a member of the Armed Forces and had told his mother that he was going to Kyiv for work. It is likely that there were things the young man was not at liberty to disclose. His wife and mother went through hell for two years before learning from a hostage released in December 2019 that Stanislav is alive, with the militants holding him under the name Oleksandr Bozhok.
Seized on 16 June 2020 by the ‘LPR ministry of state security’ and then ‘sentenced’ on 5 February 2021 to 12 years on the standard charge of ‘spying for Ukraine’. He had only been transferred to a SIZO in December 2020, and had almost certainly been held in a secret prison or basement before then and tortured.
The so-called ‘LPR ministry of state security’ reported 21-year-old Lilipa’s ‘arrest’ on 22 September 2020. They accused him of passing ‘state secrets’ to the SBU, with the latter having supposedly recruited him when he was 16.
The list, unfortunately, could be much longer. It is Russia that ultimately decides whether a hostage release will take place and maximum pressure is needed from other governments, with a number of lives quite literally at stake.