Donbas militants acknowledge the crimes committed by ‘chief butcher’ of Izolyatsia secret prison
The self-proclaimed and Russian-controlled ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ [DPR] has reacted to the high-profile seizure in Kyiv of Denis Kulikovsky (‘Palych’) by declaring this same individual wanted for ‘state treason’ and murder. This is a curious act of self-incrimination given that Kulikovsky is identified by many former hostages as the ‘chief butcher’ of the Izolyatsia secret prison whose existence both ‘DPR’ and Moscow continue to deny.
On 3 December, the so-called ‘DPR Prosecutor General’s Office’ announced that they had “declared wanted on charges of murder and state treason former employee of the republic’s penitentiary institutions Denis Kulikovsky.” The ‘investigation’ had established, the report said, that “the accused, who due to his type of work was aware of information on restricted access, left for the territory of Ukraine where he was recruited by the Ukrainian security services, with this confirmed in the testimony of a number of witnesses including [Stanislav] Aseyev and [Yevhen] Brazhnikov, by other operational information, as well as by his last public interview on open access.”
The report speaks of over 100 criminal acts by Kulikovsky in ‘DPR’, “including causing injuries and mutilation to prisoners held in DPR penitentiary institutions.” They are also ‘investigating’ a killing in 2015 when Kulikovsky was drunk.
The militants have repeatedly tried to undermine the testimony given by former Izolyatsia prisoner and Ukrainian writer Stanislav Aseyev, including in a whole book about Izolyatsia. Now they are quoting him as their source, as well as Yevhen Brazhnikov. The latter was originally a prisoner himself, but then became part of the torture machine, taking part in the horrific treatment of Ukrainian hostages. His release as part of the last main exchange of prisoners in December 2019 elicited outrage, and he was eventually arrested and is now due to go on trial. Recent reports that he had fled the country and was ‘seeking asylum in France’ have been officially refuted, although it remains to be seen whether he does appear at the next court hearing. It is difficult to imagine how any EU country would refuse to extradite Brazhnikov back to Ukraine given the weight of evidence against him. As reported, it was finally agreed in September 2021 that the trial would take place in Kyiv, following repeated applications from nine former hostages who all wish to testify against Brazhnikov.
‘DPR’ references to testimony given by both Aseyev and Brazhnikov are further confirmation of their de facto acknowledgement of Izolyatsia’s existence. Of course, all of the numerous reports in ‘DPR media’ talk of ‘penitentiary institutions’, and, like the original report, studiously avoid mentioning Izolyatsia. There are, however, numerous witnesses more than willing to recount their experiences at the hands of both Kulikovsky and Brazhnikov, and specifically at Izolyatsia.
Presumably in ‘DPR’ or, more likely, in Moscow, there is concern about just what Kulikovsky has revealed. In fact, the move probably confirms the suspicion that Kulikovsky managed to live for two years in Kyiv because of some level of collaboration with Ukraine’s SBU [Security Service].
The ‘DPR’ militants did not only avoid direct mention of Izolyatsia in the 3 December reports. They were also extremely circumspect in their words about Kulikovsky. They speak, for example, of his last “public interview”, since admitting that he was effectively giving testimony would force them to acknowledge his highly publicized arrest. What they refer to as an interview is almost certainly what the SBU released on 12 November as some elements of Kulikovsky’s ‘testimony’. During the five minutes, Kulikovsky describes what he did at Izolyatsia, answering for ‘security’ until December 2014, after which he became the head. He says his role was to “extract, so to speak, truthful testimony” and describes the methods of torture applied, the role of the person hostages called ‘Doctor’ or Doc, but whom Kulikovsky names as Stanislav Simonov, in both taking part in torture and reviving people if the torture went too far. He also states that during every so-called ‘interrogation’, there were Russian FSB officers present, as well as those from the so-called ‘ministry of state security’ of the armed formation, calling itself the ‘Donetsk people’s republic’. He worked at Izolyatsia till January 2018 and says that officers from the FSB, Moscow central counter-intelligence came and took him away. In a separate scene, he states that FSB officers mainly worked with Vasily Viktorovych Yevdokimov, known as ‘Lenin’.
As reported, the SBU and former hostages, in particular Stanislav Aseyev, announced on 9 November that the former head of Izolyatsia / Kulikovsky had been seized that morning, at 2.30 a.m. The SBU announcement stated that, according to their information, “this person organized and directly participated in murders and the torture of illegally imprisoned Ukrainian citizens.” He had initially been presented with four charges: human trafficking (Article 149 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code); the formation of a terrorist group or organization (Article 258-3); formation of militarized or armed formations not envisaged by law (Article 260); and violations of the laws and practice of war (Article 438).
Kulikovsky was brought before the Prymorsky District Court in Mariupol on 10 November, and remanded in custody for two months. During the hearing, Kulikovsky announced that he had been living in Kyiv, in rented accommodation, since 2019. The head of the SBU, Ivan Bazhanov refused to provide any comment regarding the fact that Kulikovsky had been in Kyiv for so long. He said that they could not reveal certain details to ensure that the investigation was successfully completed. He denied that Kulikovsky had reached a deal with the SBU, and said that if he had done so, he would never have been detained.
On 12 November, during Savik Shuster’s talk show ‘Freedom of Speech’, Aseyev and Christo Grozev from Bellingcat provided details that suggest it was precisely thanks to their efforts that Kulikovsky was arrested. Aseyev explained that he had, three weeks earlier, received reliable information that Kulikovsky had crossed into Ukraine from Russia in 2019, and that he was in Kyiv. He immediately contacted Grozev who was able to confirm that same day that the information was correct. The following day, Grozev put Aseyv in contact with an ex-SBU officer who had been involved in a special operation over Kulikovsky in 2019. The ex-officer confirmed that they had for some amount of time worked with Kulikovsky. When asked by Shuster, Aseyev said that yes, Kulikovsky had, almost certainly, been used as an agent.
The story is undoubtedly disturbing. Aseyev asserts that since there would have been a conflict of interest had they approached the SBU, they turned to the National Police, and asked for operational help since they, as civilians, could not arrest Kulikovsky. They found an individual who, originally for money, was prepared to reveal Kulikovsky’s whereabouts. In fact, the SBU got whiff of all of this and, Aseyev recounts, began “frantically searching for Kulikovsky” themselves. The informer, having understood, that the SBU would be unlikely to pat the person on the back for making them look bad (by handing Kulikovsky over to the National Police, and not the SBU), provided the information on 8 November, but without taking any money.
During the Savik Shuster show, Aseyev called the five minutes of testimony only a tiny percent of what Kulikovsky was responsible for. He said that Kulikovsky had, day by day, throughout the year, tortured people – using electric currents (attached to parts of the body, including the genitals); forcing people to stand, arms and legs spread out against the wall for many hours with Kulikovsky and Simonov taking part in beating them if they collapsed. He provided other examples, and called Kulikovsky a psychopathic sadist who was, nonetheless, fully capable of answering for his actions in court.
Kulikovsky’s statements about the FSB correspond to accounts from many former hostages and to Bellingcat’s findings, reported by Grozev on the TV program and shortly afterwards in a new study. Grozev explained that they (at Bellingcat) had begun their investigation after meeting Aseyev (who was released in December 2019). They were able to swiftly establish the Russian passports of some of the butchers (literally ‘executioners’) – he named Yury Kryvonis; Volodymyr Butenko and Ruslan Yeremichev. All of these were earlier identified by Aseyev as involved in torturing hostages. Bellingcat, too, had reached the conclusion that Izolyatsia is under the control of Russia’s FSB.