Russia wanted a new ‘Crimean saboteur trial’, so they looked around for three Ukrainians
Exactly five years ago, on 9 November 2016, Russia’s FSB arrested two internationally known Ukrainian academics, Dmytro Shtyblikov and Oleksiy Bessarabov, and Volodymyr Dudka, a retired naval captain. This was Russia’s second attempt in three months to claim that they had foiled a ‘Ukrainian saboteur’ plot, and the first in which the alleged ‘plotters’ actually knew each other. The fact that the men were friends did not make the FSB’s plot any the more plausible, yet all of the men remain imprisoned to this day. Bessarabov (b. 1976) and Dudka (b. 1964) are serving 14-year sentences, while Shtyblikov (b. 1970), who should have been released this week, is facing additional ‘treason’ charges, carrying a potential 20-year sentence. The men’s release has been repeatedly demanded by international bodies and by the authoritative Memorial Human Rights Centre. The latter considers that the Russian authorities fabricated the ‘sabotage’ charges as part of an ongoing campaign aimed at presenting Ukraine and its citizens as ‘the enemy’. There have been many such cases since the arrests within two months of Russia’s invasion of Crimea of Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and three other opponents of Russian occupation. All of them have been based on ‘confessions’ from men held without access to independent lawyers and on seriously flawed and / or rigged evidence.
The Russian FSB first reported the new arrests on 10 November 2016. No names were given, with it claimed only that “members of a sabotage-terrorist group of the central department of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence” had been detained. This ‘group’ had, supposedly, been planning to carry out acts of sabotage on military and other infrastructure in Crimea and it was asserted that the FSB had removed “very powerful explosive devices, weapons and ammunition, special communications devices and other significant evidence of criminal activities, including plans of the sites for the intended acts of sabotage”.
The official Russian and occupation media invariably report and often embellish such claims to prove Kyiv’s iniquity and can be relied upon to ask no inconvenient questions. There were, however, obvious question marks over the arrests and grandiose claims from the outset.
It was, for example, quite unclear, if so much incriminating evidence had been discovered, why the FSB instead showed a search of Shtyblikov’s flat with the camera lingering over a Ukrainian flag on the wall, a business card purportedly belonging to Dmytro Yarosh, former head of ‘Right Sector’, and ‘weapons’ which sports fans immediately identified as airguns which Styblikov used in the game Airsoft (Strike Ball). The ‘business card’ in question had already aroused mirth and multiple Internet memes back in 2014 when Russian propaganda television triumphantly displayed it, claiming it had been found in the gutted wreck of a car which they claimed that Ukrainians had attacked. A little later, Russian state TV showed excerpts of ‘confessions’ given by Shtyblikov and Bessarabov.
At that stage, none of the men had had access to an independent lawyer. Shtyblikov was designated the role of ‘ringleader’ and prevented from seeing a proper lawyer at all. Probably under torture and, his family believe, threats against them, Shtyblikov agreed to plead guilty and was sentenced, on 16 November 2017, to five years’ maximum security imprisonment after a ‘trial’ (under presiding judge Gennady Vladimirovich Nikitin) that took all of 50 minutes.
The charge of ‘state treason’ (under Article 275 of the Russian criminal code) was publicly reported in December 2020, and very little information is available. Shtyblikov does now have a proper lawyer, however Dmitry Dinze, who has represented many Ukrainian political prisoners, beginning with filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, has been forced to sign a non-divulgence agreement. Since Shtyblikov has been imprisoned since 9 November 2016, the state treason charge presumably pertains to the pre-arrest period. Such use of ‘treason’ charges against former naval officers, forced, after Russia’s invasion and annexation, to take Russian citizenship, are a very worrying development.
Bessarabov and Dudka were finally able to have proper lawyers and immediately retracted their supposed ‘confessions’. They later gave detailed accounts of the torture through electric shocks used to obtain them.
In explaining its recognition of Bessarabov and Dudka as political prisoners in May 2020, Memorial mentioned the fact that they had been held incommunicado and tortured, and also noted that the FSB had failed to provide any real proof of a crime. The men’s biological traces had not been found on the alleged hiding place of explosives. They had been ‘found’ on a map of the city which the men were supposed to have used in planning acts of sabotage, however an expert analysis found that the traces were only on the edge of the map and not over the entire surface. This would make no sense if this were really, as asserted, a map that the men were using. Both men had earlier complained that saliva and other samples had been taken without any protocol being drawn up and without lawyers present, making it very easy for them to be used to falsify evidence.
The lack of hard evidence is especially telling given that the FSB had the men under video surveillance and their telephones were being tapped. There was not one video or audio-recording that could even remotely confirm any plans to carry out acts of sabotage.
Instead of recordings, the FSB came up with alleged correspondence on the messenger Viber. Memorial points out that there are strong grounds for believing this to have been fabricated, and that the telephones were planted. Dudka’s son , Ilya, has long reported that the men who came to ‘search’ his father’s home quickly ‘found’ what they had brought, and then left, without bothering to pretend to search the kitchen or bathroom.
Dudka’s lawyer, Sergei Legostov, called the prosecution’s story about the telephones “worse than the shoddiest of detective novels”. It was claimed that an unidentified person involved in Ukrainian military intelligence in Kharkiv had asked a stranger in Crimea to buy the telephones and pass them over to the defendants – for them to then be ‘found’ when the FSB turned up.
Bessarabov and Dudka were sentenced on 4 April 2019 to 14 years’ imprisonment and steep fines, with the sentences so high almost certainly because both men had refused to ‘cooperate’ with the FSB. Judges Igor Vladimirovich Kozhevnikov; Vasily Aleksandrovich Avkhimov; and Vladimir Ilych Reshetnyak, from what is now called the Southern Regional Military Court in Rostov ignored the considerable evidence of falsification and total lack of real proof, as well as the men’s consistent accounts of torture. Russia’s Supreme Court proved just as willing to condone political persecution and upheld the sentences in full on 15 October 2019.
The FSB had not specified the size of the alleged ‘saboteur group’, with the list of potential targets almost certainly resulting from the FSB’s illegal access to Ukrainian naval documents in occupied Sevastopol. Two younger men, with similar professional backgrounds, Oleksiy Stohniy and Hlib Shabliy were arrested 10 days later, with these also made much of on state television. In fact, Stohniy was arrested at a different time and place, with the videoed images of his apparent arrest staged for the camera. Both Stohniy and Shabliy were later convicted of charges that had virtually no connection to the sabotage that they had ‘confessed to’ and served those sentences to the end.
After five years of politically motivated torment, two of the men - Oleksiy Bessarabov and Volodymyr Dudka remain imprisoned on charges that bear no scrutiny, and Dmytro Shtyblikov, who has just turned 51 is facing another huge sentence on monstrously cynical charges.
Please write to Oleksiy Bessarabov and Volodymyr Dudka! It is unclear as yet where Dmytro Shtyblikov is imprisoned)
Even just a few words will tell them and Russia that they are not forgotten. Letters need to be in Russian, and any political subjects or reference to their case should be avoided. If possible, include an envelope and some thin paper so that they can respond.
If Russian is a problem, the following would be fine, maybe with a photo or card (the address on the envelope can be in Russian or English)
Желаю Вам здоровья, мужества и терпения, надеюсь на скорое освобождение. Простите, что мало пишу – мне трудно писать по-русски, но мы все о Вас помним.
[Hi. I wish you good health, courage and patience and hope that you will soon be released. I’m sorry that this letter is short – it’s hard for me to write in Russian., but you are not forgotten. ]
Алексей Евгеньевич Бессарабов, 1976 гр
ФКУ ИК-1 УФСИН России по Ставропольскому краю,
357000, с. Кочубеевское, Российская Федерация
[or in English Bessarabov, Aleksei Yevgenievich, b. 1976
Russia 357000, Stavropol Krai, Kochubeyevskoe, Prison No. 1
Владимир Михайлович Дудка, 1964 гр,
ФКУ ИК-11 УФСИН России по Ставропольскому краю,
355044 г. Ставрополь-44. Российская Федерация
[Or in English: Dudka, Vladimir Mikhailovich, b. 1964
Russia 355044, Stavropol-44, Prison No. 11]