war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Russian FSB uses total isolation to torture and try to break abducted Kherson woman

Halya Coynash

Iryna Horobtsova

Iryna Horobtsova

It is well over seven months since Russian soldiers abducted Iryna Horobtsova from her home in Kherson.  She is believed to have been taken to occupied Crimea, but her lawyer, Emil Kurbedinov, has not once been allowed to see her.  He is convinced that the Russian FSB are deliberately holding Horobtsova in total isolation, to try to break her and make her agree to whatever preposterous charges they propose. 

Iryna was seized by the Russians on 13 May, her 37th birthday.  The Russians then claimed that she would shortly be released, but that proved a brutal lie.  In a recent interview, Kurbedinov reported that, according to his information, Iryna was held for two months in a solitary confinement cell and is generally being held in total isolation from the world.  She is understood to be in SIZO No. 2, the new remand prison in occupied Crimea that Russia is increasingly using for civilian hostages it abducted from mainland Ukraine.

The lawyer explains that he received information from the FSB [Russia’s security service] that Horobtsova was detained due to her resistance to what Russia is calling its ‘special military operation’ and was in Russian custody.  The FSB even claim this to in “in accordance with Russian law” although the Ukrainian civilian was seized by Russian soldiers on sovereign Ukrainian territory.  Several months later, Russian leader Vladimir Putin organized a farcical ‘referendum’ and then claimed that these four entire oblasts of Ukraine had ‘become part of the Russian Federation’.  Not only were the Kherson oblast and other three not fully under Russian occupation at the time, but parts of them have since been liberated, including Kherson. Russia’s own legislation does not openly permit the flagrant violation of international law which the abduction, enforced disappearances, torture and imprisonment of civilian hostages manifestly constitute.

As far as Kurbedinov is aware, the FSB have not initiated any criminal proceedings. 

Kurbedinov also approached the Russian occupation ‘police’ in Crimea who said that Horobtsova’s fingerprints had been taken in SIZO No. 1.  In fact, however, Kurbedinov has learned that she is being held at the new SIZO, No. 2.  This is through unofficial sources, but the lawyer is quite certain that she is held there, although without any procedural documents having been drawn up. 

The SIZO and Russian penitentiary service are using this lack of documentation to prevent Kurbedinov from seeing his client, with both lying and claiming that she is not at the SIZO.   He arranged to represent the abducted woman over half a year ago and has not once been able to meet with her.

From what I understand, Iryna was held in a solitary confinement cell for two months.  For half a year they have been holding her without court warrants or investigation in places of confinement.  The situation in such cases is very hard.  She probably thinks that nobody knows anything about her and that nobody is saying anything.  She doesn’t even know that anyone is fighting for her and that she has a lawyer. This is done to ‘blunt’ her patriotic fervour, so as to put psychological pressure on Iryna, so that she signs what they need. The Russian authorities are trying in this way to break people who have been held for a long time, without any status, in SIZO. I assume that they tell their prisoners that if they sign something, or ‘confess’, that they’ll be freed quickly, and that this unending nightmare of solitude will end.  They try to make people more malleable in this way”.

Kurbedinov explains that there is an email system where, for money, people can write to any prisoner held in Russia or occupied Crimea.  Iryna’s parents have twice tried this and received answers from their daughter.  She told them that she is quite alone and has no contact with the outside world, and also asked them to pass on some items for her.  Kurbedinov stresses, however, that such letters are not direct, but in either direction will be censored by the SIZO staff.  In contrast, he attempted a handwritten letter to Iryna.  He did not receive an answer and suspects she was simply not passed the letter. 

It is already illegal to not allow a prisoner access to an independent lawyer.  Russia is still further violating Iryna’s fundamental rights and international law by, in all probability, concealing the fact that Kurbedinov is trying to see her and act as her lawyer.  

Kurbedinov has approached the special rapporteur of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances, and says that the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union has lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights.  Russia is now no longer a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, but was at the time of Horobtsova’s abduction (although it denies this).

As reported, Iryna Horobtsova worked as an IT engineer, testing software, prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion and occupation of Kherson. She was also an outspoken blogger, who did not conceal her attitude to the invasion.  She openly expressed her strongly pro-Ukrainian views on her social media pages which have now been blocked, probably by her captors.  The Zmina Human Rights Centre notes that her last post on Facebook, two days before her abduction, called for measures to ensure the safe withdrawal of the Ukrainian defenders whom the Russians had besieged at the Azovstal Steelworks in Mariupol. 

Iryna’s sister, Olena Horobtsova, earlier told the Media Institute for Human Rights [MIHR] that, after the war began and problems arose with transport, her sister helped the medics who lived outside Kherson to get to work.  She collected money and passed it to the blood transfusion centre and also bought whatever medicine she could obtain.  

Pro-Ukrainian views and / or an active civic position would already have placed Iryna at risk, but there was one other detail which MIHR pointed out.  Iryna had moved in with her parents after the invasion began, and their balcony looks out over the airport at Chornobaivka.  This airport became very well-known in Ukraine, and the subject of Internet memes due to the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ multiple successful attacks on the Russians who had seized control of it.  Each such attack would send the Russians hunting for somebody to blame.  They would appear to have seen Horobtsova on this balcony, and have decided that she was directing Ukrainian fire on the Russian positions. 

Russia is, in violation of all international law, waging a war of aggression against Ukraine, and claiming that it is "in accordance with Russian law” to abduct Ukrainian citizens who rightly object to such aggression. Holding Iryna incommunicado, without any legal status and without access to a lawyer is both criminal and tantamount to torture. 

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