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.

Abducted Kherson woman held for a year without a lawyer ‘to protect Russian state secrets’

Halya Coynash
Iryna Horobtsova has been held in isolation, with no sign that Russia is accusing her of anything except opposing their invasion of her country

Iryna Horobtsova

Iryna Horobtsova

Almost a year has passed since Iryna Horobtsova was abducted by the Russian invaders of Kherson and her lawyer has still not been allowed to see her. The Russians cannot even coordinate their lies, with the FSB telling lawyer Emil Kurbedinov that she is fine, while the prison service in occupied Crimea claim to know nothing about her.

Kurbedinov reported on 13 April that the FSB are refusing, not only to allow him to see Iryna, but even to provide information about her.  This is, purportedly, “in defence of state secrets.”  The alleged ‘state secret’ in this case may well be whether Russia has even brought specific charges against the 37-year-old Ukrainian IT specialist from Kherson. It is possible that they are holding her incommunicado in order to break her will, and force her into providing any ‘confession’, however preposterous.  

It is, in fact, almost certain that Horobtsova was taken illegally from Kherson to occupied Crimea and that she is being held prisoner in either Simferopol SIZO [remand prison] No. 1 or No. 2. The latter was opened after Russia’s full-scale invasion and appears to be used for prisoners abducted from mainland Ukraine. Human Rights Watch has spoken with a Ukrainian woman who contacted Iryna’s parents in November 2022 and explained that she had been held prisoner at the SIZO with their daughter.  The woman had been seized by the Russians as she and her husband tried to leave Kherson via occupied Crimea on 14 September and held prisoner for a month. Like Horobtsova, she was held incommunicado, interrogated but not charged. She was, however, finally released, and has been able to pass on scant details about Iryna’s treatment by the Russians.  She told the woman that she had been held in solitary confinement for over three months, and that she had been blindfolded by her captors and taken to occupied Crimea “where she was interrogated twice about her pro-Ukraine position. Horobtsova also told her that her interrogators had placed an AK-rifle on the table in front of her and hung a clothing iron on the wall in the interrogation room, threatening to use it on her if she did not “tell [them] everything.” 

Her parents have received two letters from their daughter, via an indirect email system. In both, Iryna spoke of being held alone and without any contact with the outside world. All such emails pass through the SIZO censor, and there is no way of knowing whether she received the full letters sent by her parents. Perhaps more disturbingly, it is not possible to say with certainty whether she even knows that Emil Kurbedinov is representing her and trying to see her.  One of the methods of psychological torture applied by the FSB is to constantly tell prisoners that nobody wants to know where they are, that Ukraine has forgotten them, etc.

For these reasons, Kurbedinov has issued a plea to anybody who may have been held in the same cell as Iryna or seen her in the SIZO to contact him. He promises total confidentiality, with no information made public without the informant’s consent.

Horobtsova (b. 1985) is a psychology graduate, who was working, before Russia’s full-scale invasion, as an IT specialist, testing software. Her elderly parents had refused to leave Kherson after the Russians invaded and seized control. Although a friend has said that Iryna was planning to leave, she had clearly hoped for the liberation from the invaders (which came many months after her abduction) and made no secret of her pro-Ukrainian position. On the contrary, she had attended all of the demonstrations in the centre of Kherson (which continued until the Russians began opening fire at the demonstrators) and spoke out against the invasion on social media.  She was also active as a volunteer, helping to drive medics from outside Kherson to work, raising money for the blood transfusion centre and also transporting food and medicine to hospitals, as well as to Kherson residents in need.

On 11 May, she had used her social media page to call for the evacuation of the defenders of the Azovstal Steelworks in Mariupol whom the Russians had surrounded and were mercilessly bombing.

It was just two days later, on 13 May, Iryna’s 37th birthday, that eleven armed Russians in military uniform burst into the family’s home.  Iryna was there alone with her 75-year-old mother. The Russians searched the apartment, taking away three laptops and Iryna’s mobile.  They claimed that she was being taken away for questioning only and would return that evening. This proved to be the first of a constant stream of lies, with all her parents’ attempts to find out where she was being held resulting in empty denials.

Emil Kurbedinov began actively searching for Horobtsova in late June 2022.  He later received confirmation from the FSB that she was in Russian captivity. They claimed that this was “in accordance with Russian law” and that she had been detained for opposing what they continue to call Russia’s ‘special military operation’, and would be released after this ‘operation’ ended.

There is nothing about such abductions that could be in accordance even with Russian law, and it is clearly a flagrant violation to hold a person in captivity for almost a year, probably without any charges being laid, and certainly without access to a lawyer.

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