Russians seize and torture two 16-year-old Ukrainian lads, threaten 20-year sentences
Russia a grotesque show trial of two Ukrainian teenagers from occupied Berdiansk whom it is accusing of ‘sabotage’. At least one of the lads was tortured after Russian military burst into the home where he was living with his grandmother. This is not the first time that the Russians have abducted or otherwise ill-treated children, but the situation is especially serious as 16-year-old Tihran Ohannisian and Mykyta Khanhanov face ‘sentences’ from 10-20 years.
[MIHR] first reported the situation on 25 May, the day after Russia’s ‘Investigative Committee’ formally charged the two lads with ‘sabotage’, under Article 281 of Russia’s criminal code. Russia has been violating international law since 2014 through its illegal application of its legislation on occupied territory and this time the two victims of an arsenal of torture, terror and fabricated charges are only 16. The charges are also immensely cynical since the aggressor state, while committing the international crime of aggression, is using its legislation on‘sabotage’ for reprisals against Ukrainians defending their country against such aggression. ‘Rail partisans’ who damaged railway tracks, signals boxes, etc., in Ukraine, as well as in Belarus and Russia, sought only to obstruct an invading army on foreign soil.
MIHR explained that it had not made the boys’ plight public earlier as they hoped that the so-called ‘investigative measures’ against the lads were merely the latest form of intimidation, and that they would not seriously put them on ‘trial’. This changed on 24 May when the Investigative Committee claimed that both lads had damaged railway tracks to prevent supplies reaching the invading forces. The lads now need as much publicity as possible, especially since it is likely that the Russians released Tihran Ohanissian after five days of torture because of the publicity his abduction had caused.
Armed Russians turned up at Tihran’s grandmother’s home in occupied Berdiansk during the early hours of 30 September 2022. The rest of his family had evacuated to Germany after Russia began its full-scale invasion, but Tihran had decided to stay with his grandmother. Oksana Starovierova, Tihran’s mother, that there were around 20 armed Russian soldiers and that both Tihran and his grandmother were beaten with the butt of a machine gun. The Russians carried out a ‘search’ during which they took computers, laptops; a children’s tablet; telephones and phones. As Starovierova puts it, “what they didn’t steal, they broke.”
The Russians claimed to Tihran’s grandmother that they had ‘information that a very dangerous criminal’ was at this address, however it was the young schoolboy that they seized. They put a bag over his head and forced him into their car. This must already have been terrifying, but much worse was to come, as the Russians tortured Tihran with electric currents and took him to a field where they subjected him to mock executions.
They initially threw him into a cell with adult civilian hostages, but then moved him into a cell by himself. His grandmother desperately tried to see him, but was constantly kept out. On the third day, however, Tihran had a high temperature, and they did take a blanket from her and told her to bring some other things for him. One of the Russians showed Tihran’s grandmother a photo of him, wrapped in the blanket, and claimed that she had no need to worry, “he likes it here”.
The contrary was, of course, the case, and Oksana says that her son was deeply traumatized by his abduction and torture. He was suddenly released on 6 October 2022, possibly, MIHR believes, because of the publicity.
The Russians also came that day for Mykyta Khanhanov, who is in the same year as Tihran at school. The family, however, were not there and the Russians left. Two weeks later, they turned up again and took both Mykyta and his father away. They were, however, released after being interrogated.
Both boys were regularly interrogated, and other searches were carried out. The lads had to report to the occupation ‘police station’ every day.
Oksana and her husband decided in January 2023 to return from Germany, with their smaller children, and to try to rescue Tihran. They set off later with him in the car, but got stopped with Tihran taken away and interrogated for five hours. He was later put in a military car, together with his mother, and taken back to Berdiansk, with his father and two younger siblings following in the family’s car.
In February, a so-called ‘investigator on particularly important cases’ arrived in Berdiansk and interrogated the lads. Both were taken to Rostov in Russia on 7 April for a psychological – psychiatric ‘assessment’.
Both lads are now effectively held under house arrest in Berdiansk, with Russia’s notorious Investigative Committee laying charges that carry a sentence of up to 20 years’ imprisonment. It is claimed that, at the beginning of September 2022, the lads entered into a conspiracy to provide support for Ukraine’s Armed Forces. The specific claim is that, together, they damaged railway tracks to stop the Russians getting supplies to the invading force.
Both lads had local ‘lawyers’ appointed for them, with one of these individuals simply trying to get the lad to perjure himself and ‘confess’.
It is important to stress that Russia is not only in breach of international law through bringing such charges in the first place. It also violates Ukrainians’ right to a fair trial and the prohibition of torture. There is, effectively, no chance that the lads will receive a fair trial, and it is imperative that international pressure is brought to bear on Russia to stop such terror and persecution of very young lads.