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11-year sentence for ‘state treason’ against Ukrainian opposing Russia’s occupation of Crimea

17.09.2021
Halya Coynash

Ivan Yatskin

The Russian Third Court of Appeal has upheld an illegal 11-year sentence passed by an occupation court against Ivan Yatskin, a Ukrainian living in his native Crimea. The charge was of ‘state treason in the form of spying’ (under Article 275 of Russia’s criminal code), with both Yatskin’s arrest and the shocking sentence almost certainly because of his pro-Ukrainian position and opposition to Russian occupation. Yatskin and his wife, Gulnara have three small children, including a daughter who was born after her father’s arrest. 

Yatskin’s lawyer, Nikolai Polozov reports that the appeal court held an offsite hearing on 16 September at the Russian-controlled Crimean High Court.  Like the ‘trial’ itself, the hearing was held behind closed doors, on the spurious grounds that the case involved ‘state secrets’   Even under such conditions there was still no excuse for the court having prevented Yatskin’s wife from being present at the announcement of the court ruling.   The couple have been together for a long time but were formally married in a ceremony in the SIZO [remand prison] last week. 

The original sentence – of 11 years in a harsh regime prison colony – was upheld in full, with this meaning that Yatskin is likely to be moved to a Russian prison thousands of kilometres from his home and family.  He has an elderly mother who was prevented the chance even of seeing her son in court.

Yatskin, who will be turning 43 on 22 October, has problems with the circulatory system and has a painful vascular ulcer on his leg which urgently needs treatment. Despite repeated requests in writing, the SIZO administration have provided no medical care, beyond painkillers.  Polozov stresses that a full medical examination and, possibly, an operation are needed, and that otherwise Yatskin could lose his leg.

Yatskin is one of a number of Ukrainians in Crimea who were arrested on ‘spying’ charges between October and December 2019, during the first months after Moscow released 35 Ukrainian political prisoners and POWs in exchange, mainly, for MH17 witness (perhaps suspect) Volodymyr Tsemakh

Armed FSB officers, many in masks, burst into the family’s home in the village of Volkovo on 16 October 2019 and took Yatskin away.  The supposed ‘search’ carried out that day was suspiciously cursory, with the FSB not removing any mobile phones, although that would have been an obvious place to start had they genuinely believed that Yatskin was a ‘spy’.  The FSB were led by a Russian investigator, Sergei Makhnev, who has been involved in a number of political trials, especially involving Crimean Tatars.

The arrest fell on the eve of Ivan’s mother’s birthday,, and the elderly lady was expecting them to visit that day.  Gulnara Kadyrova earlier recounted how she had arrived at her mother-in-law’s home with the children. Taisia Yatskina came out to greet them with a big smile and asked “but where is Ivan?”  That was one of the hardest moments, Gulnara says, having to explain that Ivan had been taken away.

Due to the alleged ‘state secrets’, the FSB was able also to force secrecy about the case on Polozov.  Enough, however, was clear for the authoritative Memorial Human Rights Centre to have recognized Yatskin as a political prisoner even before the trial began.  In their report, they provide a damning assessment of the little that is known about the charges of ‘state treason via spying’.

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 examined 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 pointed out that total secrecy about this or that law enforcement unit is inadmissible and can only foster abuse.

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.  Even after Polozov took on the case, brutal treatment and threats against his family were used to try to break the Ukrainian’s resolve.

According to Memorial’s findings, Yatskin had travelled to mainland Ukraine and had taken part in gathering things to help the Ukrainian Army fighting in Donbas. Memorial thought it possible that he had himself taken part as a volunteer soldier.  He was also involved later, towards the end of 2015, in the Crimean Blockade.  

None of the above, it should be stressed, was in any way illegal, but would certainly explain why the Russian FSB targeted him.

Memorial concluded its report by saying that Yatskin’s persecution was 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.   All of such prosecutions are additionally illegal and in violation of international law which prohibits an occupying state from applying its legislation on occupied territory.

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