war crimes in Ukraine

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Nine former hostages to testify against ex-militant over torture at Donetsk Izolyatsia secret prison

Halya Coynash
Ukraine’s Supreme Court has finally agreed to transfer the trial of Yevhen Brazhnikov to Kyiv, making it possible for nine ex-hostages tortured at the notorious Izolyatsia secret prison to provide testimony
Izolyatsia Photos posted by person calling himself Donetsky Traktorist, Yevhen Brazhnikov (right) in court on 12.08.2021 with his lawyer Photo Tetyana Kozak, Graty

Ukraine’s Supreme Court has finally agreed to transfer the trial of Yevhen Brazhnikov to Kyiv, making it possible for nine former hostages who were tortured at the notorious Izolyatsia secret prison in the Russian proxy ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [‘DPR’] to provide testimony.  It was thanks to the ex-hostages and their consistent account of Brazhnikov’s active part in their torture that led to charges being laid, and he has understandably fought to keep the trial in Pokrovsk (Donetsk oblast).

Oleksandr Kleshchenko, the prosecutor in the case, informed Graty on 9 September, that the Supreme Court had allowed the nine hostages’ application and moved the trial from a court in the Donetsk oblast to the Obolon District Court in Kyiv.  Although the hostages’ application had been supported by the prosecutor, this was the third attempt to get the trial moved.  Both in April, and in July this year, the Supreme Court had stated that it did not find exceptional grounds for believing that the transfer of the case would facilitate timely and effective criminal proceedings.

Whether or not they were ‘exceptional’ was, clearly for the Court to determine, however there were compelling grounds for the transfer.  Even Brazhnikov himself, had said that he was planning to go and live near where the trial is to take place, so is clearly not there now.  For the nine men who wish to give testimony, such a move was not an option.  The nine former hostages who lodged the application are: Stanislav Aseyev; Roman His; Oleh Kulakov; Ihor Kulish; Kyryllo Polykarpov;  Stanislav Pechonkin; Oleksandr Repetylo; Oleh Suherei and Serhiy Usatiuk. They explained that it would be logistically and financially difficult for them to travel to the Donetsk oblast.  Even if most of them are registered in the Donetsk oblast, their homes are almost certainly under ‘DPR control’ and they themselves now live and work in Kyiv.  Oleh Suherei is also still undergoing rehabilitation following his ordeal as a hostage, and he would, for that reason, be unable to leave Kyiv. 

Brazhnikov is charged with ill-treating POWs and civilians under Article 438 § 1 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code and with aiding a terrorist organization (Article 258-3 § 1).  His impending trial was announced on 13 May 2021 by the Prosecutor General’s Office, although the criminal investigation was undertaken by the SBU [Ukraine’s Security Service]. 

As reported, Brazhnikov’s release as part of the exchange of prisoners on 29 December 2019 aroused anger, especially among former hostages and the families of hostages who had not been released.  One of the most prominent hostages, Donetsk journalist and writer Stanislav Aseyev stated publicly that he had given President Volodymyr Zelensky the names of people who had clearly been mistakenly treated as hostages.  Aseyev and others gave shocking accounts of Brazhnikov’s active participation in their torture and that of other prisoners at the notorious Izolyatsia secret prison in Donetsk.  Brazhnikov himself denies any guilt, so the testimony of nine men who say that he was directly involved in their torture is critical.

Aseyev spent 31 months as a hostage in ‘DPR’, with 28 months of that time spent at Izolyatsia.  This is a former art centre which the militants seized in June 2014 and turned into a secret prison where Russian and Russian-controlled militants torture with impunity. He has criticized the exchange system which lets perpetrators be released, while victims, tortured for their pro-Ukrainian views, etc., remain in captivity for years.  Aseyev is clearly not alone in expressing the hope that Brazhnikov will be convicted and receive the maximum possible sentence.

Stanislav Pechonkin spent almost three years in  DPR captivity, with a large part of that in Izolyatsia.  He had already been brutally tortured before being taken to Izolyatsia to be ‘worked on’ more. The torture included beatings while he was held against the wall, with his arms and legs stretched out, and electric shocks, with the electrodes attached to his fingers.  He recounts that the torture was unendurable, and he would invent things just to get them to stop.  Pechonkin explains that Brazhnikov is an ex-police officer who actively helped run pro-Russian rallies and attacked participants of pro-Ukrainian demonstrations.  He was imprisoned himself at Izolyatsia over some kind of deal involving weapons.

Brazhnikov was formally charged in March 2020 and placed under 24-hour house arrest.  There are strict time limits on periods of house arrest, and at present he is at liberty.  

The Izolyatsia Cultural Centre, on the territory of a former factory complex, was seized by Roman Lyahin and other militants in June 2014 and according to multiple sources, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, was immediately turned into a prison. Its existence is denied by the DPR militants themselves, and no international organizations have been allowed into it, but there are multiple accounts from former inmates, including Stanislav Aseyev, Stanislav Pechonkin, Halyna Hayeva, Tetyana Honcharova and many others.  Although the charges against Brazhnikov appear to be of using torture to extract ‘confessions’, Hayeva and others have spoken of sadist perpetrators torturing for the sake of it. 

There remain a huge number of Ukrainian hostages in the so-called ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’, with many of those in ‘DPR’ having been tortured for many months, or longer, at Izolyatsia.

The following are just some of the victims who are known to have been held, and tortured, at Izolyatsia. Publicity and pressure on Russia are urgently needed to secure their release.

Vitaly Atamanchuk

Now 70, Atamanchuk was seized by ‘DPR’ militants, together with his wife and son Oleh, during the night from 4-5 September 2019 . 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 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!”].   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.   His lawyer pointed out how frail Atamanchuk was looking, and there are serious grounds for fearing that his life is in danger.

Natalia Statsenko

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   She suffers from chronic spinal disease and urgently needs an operation.

Valery Matiushenko 

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 Fedoruk was arrested on 25 July 2017, and ‘sentenced’ on 16 August 2019 to 11 years’ imprisonment, also for ‘spying’, and also, almost certainly, after months of torture.

Olena Piekh is 50 and suffers from epilepsy. She was seized while visiting her elderly mother who had remained in occupied Donbas in August 2018.  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’. 

Yevhen Stavtsev, who turned 35 on 2 June 2021, 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’. 

Marina Yurchak 

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. 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. 

More details about the above, as well as more hostages here: Ukrainians tortured and imprisoned in Donbas for supporting Ukraine, with Russia blocking their release

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