Russia opens new prison for Ukrainian political prisoners abducted from Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts
Russia opened a new remand prison, or SIZO, in occupied Crimea in 2022, and is using it for some of the many civilians it has abducted from occupied parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. People are thrown into this new ‘prison’ and held incommunicado, with no official charges, acknowledgement of their whereabouts and no access to a lawyer.
According to Olha Skrypnyk, Head of the Crimean Human Rights Group [CHRG], at the end of 2022, around 110 Ukrainians were believed to be held at SIZO No. 2. These were civilians who, in most cases, had been abducted by the Russian invaders from their homes in occupied parts of the Kherson or Zaporizhzhia, oblasts, tortured and then illegally taken to occupied Crimea, and imprisoned in one of the two SIZOs. We know from some of the hostages whose imprisonment was admitted, that they were also tortured after being brought to Crimea. Two young Crimean Tatars – Rustem Osmanov and Ruslan Abdurakhmanov - from Kherson oblast have given shocking accounts of the torture they endured from the FSB in occupied Crimea, with Osmanov also told that the FSB would kill members of his family if he didn’t agree to sign their fake ‘confession’. They, and others, have already been ‘convicted’ of involvement in the Noman Çelebicihan Battalion, a perfectly legal and, despite the name, peaceful organization on Ukrainian territory and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Such sentences, Skrypnyk notes, are from a regime that is actively, and illegally, recruiting even convicted criminals to fight in the Wagner and other so-called ‘private military companies’ which are even in Russian law illegal.
Russia’s political persecution of Ukrainian citizens began shortly after its invasion and annexation of Crimea, and the original SIZO in Simferopol had long been notoriously overcrowded. It is, however, likely that the speed in opening SIZO No. 2, on the territory of Prison Colony No. 1, was linked with the huge increase in abductions of Ukrainians from all parts of Ukraine that fell under Russian occupation. Russia’s invasion of Crimea had brought enforced disappearances to the peninsula, with the fate of many of its victims unknown to this day. The Russians began the same tactics after their full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and there are a large number of civilians who either disappeared without trace after being seized by the Russians, or have since proved to be in Russian captivity, either in occupied parts of Ukraine or in Russia. According to the Kherson Regional Prosecutor’s Office, at the beginning of 2023 at least 1100 civilians had been abducted by the Russians in Kherson oblast alone, with at least 474 still held prisoner.
It is especially worrying that the new SIZO No. 2 in occupied Simferopol is under the exclusive control of Russia’s FSB [security service]. The latter in occupied Crimea have been fabricating prosecutions against Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners since 2014 and are clearly certain that they can savagely torture their victims and openly falsify ‘evidence’ with total impunity.
According to CHRG’s information, Russia began moving imprisoned civilians to SIZO No. 2 in July 2022, with some having previously been held in what has now become SIZO No. 1.
The most worrying aspect is that there are people held at the new SIZO who have been placed there without any charges having been laid. These include, for example, the Mayor of Hola Prystan (Kherson oblast) Oleksandr Babych. He was seized by the Russians towards the end of March 2022, undoubtedly because of his firmly pro-Ukrainian stand, but possibly also because he was cordially hated by Oleksandr Kovalyov, a former MP, killed by Kherson partisans after he actively collaborated with the invaders.
Babych has been held prisoner since then, and is now believed to be held at SIZO No. 2. Russia is not acknowledging his whereabouts and is preventing him from seeing a lawyer. There is nothing to suggest that any specific charges have been laid.
The same is true of Iryna Horobtsova who was abducted from her home in Kherson on 13 May (her 37th birthday). Her lawyer, Emil Kurbedinov has come up against a brick wall in trying to see his client and suspects that the SIZO staff are deliberately not even passing on the letter he wrote to her. He believes that the FSB are deliberately holding Horobtsova in total isolation to try to break her and force her to sign whatever supposed ‘confession’ they put in front of her.
33-year-old Serhiy Barchuk was seized by the Russians in July 2022 because he had refused to collaborate with them and had instead tried to hide the computers he had access to because of his post as Deputy Head of Ukraine’s Pension Fund for Kherson oblast. Although the Russians were driven out of Kherson, he remains imprisoned, as are his father, stepmother and uncle, as well as a close family friend. They were all taken prisoner after they learned of Serhiy’s capture and tried to prevent the computers, with sensitive personal data, getting into the invaders’ hands. The Russians have threatened totally preposterous ‘theft’ charges, but it remains unclear whether any specific procedural measures have in fact been taken.
CHRG know of several dozen hostages held at SIZO No. 2, with some of them already known to be facing specific charges, albeit ones of quite staggering cynicism.
It is known, for example, that Ukrainian civic activist and writer Serhiy Tsyhipa, whom the Russians abducted from his native Nova Kakhovka (Kherson oblast) on 12 March, is facing ‘spying’ charges. This truly incredible accusation brought against a Ukrainian citizen by the Russian invaders who abducted him from his Russian home is also believed to be planned against Oleksandr Zarivny, the Head of the Kherson Administration’s Department of Humanitarian Policy and of the Kherson Regional Union of ATO Veterans of the military conflict in Donbas [ATO]
Another Russian classic is seen in the excuse for the abduction of Dmytro Zakharov from his home in Henichesk (Kherson oblast) on 16 June 2022. CHRG learned that “checking measures are being carried out over resistance to the [so-called] ‘special military operation’.
The Russian FSB are also fabricating surreal charges of ‘international terrorism’ against men seized by the aggressor state from their own homes. At least one of these men, 32-year-old Yaroslav Zhuk from Melitopol (Zaporizhzhia oblast) is known to be imprisoned in SIZO No. 2, although it is likely that Pavlo Zaporozhets, from Kherson, is also held there. Zhuk was seized by the Russians in June and held for some time in a Melitopol basement, before being taken to occupied Crimea and ‘officially detained’. Zaporozhets was seized on 9 May and held prisoner for three months before any official acknowledgement of his detention in occupied Crimea. Russia appears to be charging him, under Article 361 of its criminal code, with so-called ‘international terrorism’. Zhuk has described the torture he endured in detail, and Aleksei Ladin, the lawyer representing the two men has confirmed that both were subjected to torture.
Oleksiy Kiselyov, the former commander of the Ukrainian Navy’s Slavutych Command Ship, has also described the torture he was subjected to both after his abduction from his home in Henichesk on 22 July, and by the FSB. He is facing a variation of the above-mentioned charge of ‘involvement in the Noman Çelebicihan Battalion’. So too is Appaz Kurtamet, a 20-year-old Crimean Tatar from Kherson oblast who was abducted by the Russian FSB when he tried to enter occupied Crimea to visit relatives. The young man disappeared on 23 July, and was only admitted to be in Russian custody three months later. It is near certain that the FSB used that time to torture the young man.
As Skrypnyk stresses, all of the above and very many others are victims of enforced disappearances. Whatever ‘Russian legislation’ the aggressor state tries to apply on occupied territory, this will not change the fact that it is committing an international crime and crime against humanity.