Russia charges abducted Ukrainian lawyer from Kherson oblast with ‘spying’ after six months of torture
Further confirmation has emerged that Russia is holding – and torturing – a huge number of Ukrainians illegally abducted from occupied parts of Ukraine. DOXA, an independent Russian publication excerpts of letters it has received from a Russian imprisoned in the SIZO, or pre-trial detention centre, in Rostov-on-Don, with these providing important information about at least four Ukrainians whom Russia is illegally imprisoning.
‘Vasily’ (not his real name) spent the longest in the same cell with Artem Baranov, a Ukrainian lawyer abducted, together with fellow civilian Yevhen Pryshliak by the Russians from occupied Nova Kakhovka (Kherson oblast) on 13 August 2022. It was already known that Baranov had been taken to the Rostov SIZO in April 2023, with Russia planning to stage a ‘trial’ on spying charges after illegally holding him prisoner for six months. Pryshliak’s family have not been informed where he is being held.
Baranov told his cellmate that the FSB had come for him on 13 August, and that they have since accused him of passing on information “to the Ukrainian side” about the deployment of Russian military units. The invading state is, in all seriousness, claiming that such alleged actions by a Ukrainian citizen on Ukrainian territory constitute ‘spying’ under Article 276 of Russia’s criminal code (with this carrying a sentence of up to 20 years).
Baranov had, he told Vassily, been initially held in the local ‘police’ station with the occupation regime re-opening old cells that Ukraine had not used since 2005 because they did not comply with standards. He said that 12-17 men had been held in a small cell with a toilet bucket, and were forced to sleep standing. Vassily only mentions Artem, and it is possible that the latter deliberately avoided mentioning Pryshliak. The families of both men have, however, established that both were sent first to occupied Crimea, and then to three other SIZOs in Russia before Baranov was taken to the Rostov SIZO alone.
He explained to Vasily that he had been moved to a prisoner of war (POW) camp in occupied Crimea on 19 October, where he had been interrogated, supposedly as a ‘witness’. In further confirmation of what freed POWs have said, Baranov describes the conditions in that camp as much better than in any other place. The reason that POWs are held in poor, but not horrific, conditions is probably because the men have a greater chance of being released in exchanges of such prisoners. The huge number of civilians whom Russia has abducted have no status, and in very many cases the Russians are not even admitting that it has imprisoned them.
Baranov was taken from occupied Crimea to the Kamyshin SIZO in Volgograd oblast in January 2023. Although Vassily says that Baranov’s ‘case’ was made into separate proceedings at that time, he and Pryshliak were both sent, first to the Kamyshin SIZO, then to the one in Taganrog.
At the Kamyshin SIZO, Baranov told Vasily, a separate floor was set aside for Ukrainian prisoners, with this referred to as a place where they were ‘worked on’. It was standard practice to beat the men with rubber batons or kick them with combat boots while they were kneeling on the ground. The worst, Baranov said, was the ‘sauna’, where the men had to undress, with the Russians then using electric shocks, as well as beating. The men were also forced to learn and to sing the Russian anthem.
Vasily writes in his letter that prisoners have told him about similar ‘premises for working on’ prisoners in several other SIZOs, with that in Ivanovo said to be the absolute worst. He himself heard one occasion when Baranov was clearly savagely beaten and tortured with electric shocks. He writes that he could hear the shouting from the torturers - a mixture of Russian propaganda labels against Ukrainians and foul abuse, with this broken up only by the blows they inflicted on him.
Artem Baranov is a lawyer who had earlier worked in the police force. That alone would have put him in danger after the Russians invaded and seized Nova Kakhovka. Whether or not there were any other reasons will be for Baranov to say after he is safely back in Ukraine. Regardless of their motives in these two men’s case, the Russians are in flagrant violation of all international norms through such abductions, and the use of savage torture to extract ‘confessions’. Any ‘spying trial’, staged under Russian law, will be equally unlawful.
Artem Baranov and Yevhen Pryshliak were seized in the evening of 13 August 2022 at Baranov’s home. Pryshliak had visited him that day and had decided to stay the night because of the Russian-imposed curfew. A relative of Pryshliak about the terror that the Russians brought to the occupied city. You are afraid to say anything on social media or in public places and try not to take your phone with you as the Russians, if they stop you, will almost certainly check it and can take you prisoner if they find any phrase, photo, etc. that they don’t like.
Viktor, an acquaintance of the two men whom they clearly trusted, rang the entrance phone after 10 p.m. that evening. He proved to not be alone, but with 15 armed Russian soldiers who burst into the apartment. Viktor was, however, himself taken prisoner, so probably did act under duress.
Neighbours told Pryshliak’s family the next day that the men had been taken away and that they had heard cries and indication that the men were being beaten. All three were taken away, with bags over their heads. Typically, the Russians also took several valuable items, including telephones and a laptop.
Unlike on many occasions, the occupation ‘police’ did at least confirm that the men were in custody and allow the family to pass them food and clothes, and to take away and watch their clothing. Until moved to occupied Crimea in October, the men were able to get notes smuggled out to their families with the dirty washing. In these they wrote about the appalling conditions, in small basement premises where 20-30 people were held, not given decent food, and forced to sleep either standing or sitting on wooden boards.
It seems that Pryshliak did have a phone that he attempted to hide from the Russians when they turned up at the apartment in Nova Kakhovka. The latter, however, did find out and came back the following day for it.
Both families received ‘official confirmation’ in April 2023 that Baranov and Pryshliak had been detained for obstructing what Russia calls its ‘special military operation’. It appears that Pryshliak is now referred to as a ‘witness’ in the illegal spying charges brought against Baranov, but the Russians are refusing to even say where he is being held.