John Wendle

Brutalized pawns: Ukrainians trapped in Russian jails

Yuri Yatsenko’s case is a window into Russian show trials and what happens to those who get caught in the system

LVIV and KIEV, Ukraine — Blinded by a heavy black sack over his head, his hands cuffed behind his back, Yuri Yatsenko fell hard into the dirt when the men from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) booted him out of the van. For a moment, lying there, he could hear mosquitoes buzzing in the surrounding forest and the sound of songbirds. Before he could stand up, one of the men kicked him, “like a football,” in the testicles, he said. They kicked him again and again before lifting him by his cuffs and choked him until he blacked out.

Yatsenko, a 23-year-old Ukrainian law student, said he was beaten for three hours straight in yet another effort to get him to agree to go on television and confess he was a saboteur. Accusing him of various crimes, the FSB held him illegally for a year in Belgorod and Kursk while the war raged just across the border in Ukraine.

Back in his cell that night he told his jailer that he had been beaten and needed a lawyer. The old man smiled and said, “But, my little dove, I know what has happened to you.” Then he walked away.

He urinated blood for three days. It was May 22, 2014, and this was just the beginning of his ordeal.

On the day of his beating, deep in the Russian woods, Yatsenko become another victim of Russia’s increasingly predatory legal system — falling down a surreal hole of false charges, imprisonment, beatings, intimidation and solitary confinement that would cost him a year of his life.

‘Raising the stakes’

Since the war started in Ukraine’s east, this system has turned 11 Ukrainians into political prisoners and bargaining chips in negotiations with Ukraine and the West. For many observers, the sham hearings and charges echo the politically motivated show trials of the Soviet Union.

“This is all about raising the stakes. For the Russian government, these people are like the face cards in a deck. They want to have as many face cards in their hands as they can so when it comes to a political settlement, they can exchange them for concessions from outside,” said Ambassador Dmytro Kuleba, one of the officials at Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tasked with getting the prisoners released.

Two weeks earlier, on May 5, 2014, Yatsenko and his friend and fellow law student Bogdan Yarichevsky legally entered Russia near the city of Belgorod.

The late afternoon sky was sunny as they rode in a bus with other Ukrainian and Russian passengers through rolling farmland on their way to visit friends in Kursk and to buy electronics to sell in their hometown of Lviv in western Ukraine.

They crossed the border without incident, even though just three weeks before, Moscow-backed rebels helped by Russian special forces overran the Ukrainian city of Slovyansk, 100 miles to the southeast. In March 2014, Russia had annexed Crimea, and tensions between the two countries were running high.

After crossing the border, the two rented a car and spent the night at a hotel in Oboyan, on the road to Kursk. The next morning police knocked on their door. Ukrainian passports from Lviv, which they used to register at the hotel, may have been enough to rouse the interest of the authorities.

‘In solitary there is nothing to distract you from your own heavy thoughts. Sometimes I got to the point that I wanted to be taken out and badly beaten, just for some change.’

Yuri Yatsenko

Ukrainian accused of being a saboteur by Russia

Yatsenko and Yarichevsky were taken to the police station, where they were told they were detained for visa violations.

There they were subjected to minor humiliations: They were stripped and checked for fascist tattoos or bruises on their shoulders from firing a rifle — marks that would supposedly identify them as members of Ukrainian nationalist volunteer battalions fighting in the east. Within three hours, Yatsenko was shown pictures of himself protesting earlier that year on Kiev’s Maidan against pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, insinuating that he was an anti-Russian agitator.

Demands that the pair give evidence proving Ukrainian aggression in Russia were immediate. “If you want to be released, you will have to go on television,” the FSB investigator told him. “Our journalists will come, and you will say on camera that Ukraine sent you for reconnaissance and sabotage operations in Russia.”

Yatsenko refused. That is the first time he was beaten. They punched him in the stomach and cuffed his ears.

Over the next few days, the authorities ratcheted up the pressure but did not change their demand. They did not let him sleep, reminded him no one knew where he was, threatened him with needles and drugs and said they would hand him over to Ramzan Kadyrov, a Chechen leader and staunch ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

After a few weeks, Yatsenko was taken in to see high-ranking FSB officials. He again refused to confess on television and was again beaten. This is when he was taken to the woods. After this, the beatings got worse. He and Yarichevsky agreed that the next time they were taken out, they would cut their wrists.

Afraid of having two inmate suicides on their hands, the pair reasoned the police would be forced to give them a phone call.

“I got hold of a razor blade and hid it in my hair,” said Yatsenko.

Then he waited.

Finally, a phone call

Yatsenko shows the scars of his self-inflicted wound – a desperate measure to try to secure a phone call for help.
John Wendle

There are 11 Ukrainians being held in Russia, and back home they are viewed as political prisoners, with two of the cases being high-profile ones. Oleg Sentsov, a well-known Ukrainian filmmaker was sentenced on Aug. 25 by a Russian military court to 20 years in prison for terrorism in Crimea.

Alexander Kolchenko was sentenced to 10 years in the same trial. The other trial, of Ukrainian helicopter pilot Nadiya Savchenko, is ongoing. She stands accused of killing two Russian journalists while in rebel-held territory in June 2014.

The other eight other prisoners are facing a variety of serious charges, such as terrorism, spying or fighting against Russia in the Chechen wars. Most have had little or no contact with Ukrainian consuls. It is suspected that most have been subjected to the same or worse treatment meted out to Yatsenko and Yarichevsky.

“All the accusations are artificial, so the political prisoners are not being prosecuted for what they have actually done. They’re arbitrarily being prosecuted for being Ukrainians,” said Kuleba.

Calls to the FSB and Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov for comment on this case have gone unanswered. Vladimir Firsov, the Kursk ombudsman, said he was unaware of any complaints, since he was appointed only in June.

The office of the Belgorod ombudsman did not reply to requests for information.

Yatsenko heard steps coming down the corridor to his cell. He asked to use the toilet, where he sawed at his arm and stomach with the dull blade hidden in his hair. The blood flowed freely down his arm and stomach and all over the floor. Yarichevsky did the same in his cell. Shocked, the authorities finally gave them a phone call.

“I have a situation here, and I need help,” he shouted into the phone to a friend in Kiev. “I have two or three days until they start torturing us again. Do something.”

He hung up, and his jailers took him into the infirmary and sewed him up without anesthetic.

By August 2014, the visa violation charges against Yarichevsky were dropped, but Yatsenko remained in prison. When his deportation case fell apart — he should have been deported 10 days after been detained — the state charged him with terrorism, as it has done with many of the other Ukrainians. By this point, the Ukrainian consul in Moscow had visited, and Kiev got involved.

Then in mid-September 2014 he was put in solitary confinement.

The power of self-restraint

At his old high school in Lviv on the first day of class, Yatsenko speaks to students about his ordeal. Despite his harrowing experience, he remains optimistic.
John Wendle

The culture of official impunity has long been an issue in Russia, but any positive reforms since the end of the Soviet Union have been marched steadily back in recent years as Putin sought to strengthen his grip on power.

“What happened to me in that prison in the 21st century strongly reminded me of what happened in the 1930s. It was like Stalinist times,” said Yatsenko.

Since the annexation of Crimea and the war in Ukraine, vast changes have taken place in the Russian legal system, said Ilya Novikov, Savchenko’s lawyer.

“The politics of the judiciary is now more openly based on legal violations,” he said. “No judge in Russia will have the courage to render a sentence against the Federal Security Service. It’s impossible.”

In a rare statement about the detainees, Putin denied impunity against the prisoners, whom his government considers terrorists. During a December 2014 news conference, he said that Savchenko would be released immediately if the courts found her not guilty. “Russian legislation includes the presumption of innocence,” he said.

However, a new bureau within the special investigative committee focused on “crimes against the laws of war” makes Putin’s statement, at least regarding Ukrainian prisoners, seem doubtful.

Also, there is a suspicion among some that the committee exists to target Ukrainian activists. “This division has a clear purpose. They have their task — legal and political — to provide information support to this war,” said Novikov.

From mid-September to mid-December, Yatsenko was in a small cell by himself. He said that while he was afraid for his life while protesting on the Maidan, at least he had adrenaline.

“In solitary there is nothing to distract you from your own heavy thoughts,” he said. “Sometimes I got to the point that I wanted to be taken out and badly beaten, just for some change,” he said.

Yatsenko was set free on May 7, 2015. In solitary confinement, he had a lot of time to think. Today he is optimistic, forgiving and surprisingly rational about his time in prison. “It would have been a lot easier for me to fight back in prison sometimes, but because I restrained myself, I survived. Real power often lies in the courage of self-restraint,” he said.

Now free, he does not have to restrain himself. He has been asked to run for office, but he says he wants only to help the other political prisoners get released.

At least one release is being considered.

On Sept. 2, Russian Minister of Justice Alexander Konovalov said that an exchange of Russian and Ukrainian prisoners involving Savchenko would be reached through a diplomatic arrangement, not through the courts.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin said in a television interview on Sept. 7 that “if we must take the path of negotiating an exchange, we will look at this possibility, definitely.”

Kuleba, who works closely with Klimkin, agreed. “We understand that there is no legal solution to this. In the legal sphere, the Russians will do whatever they want. Lawyers’ arguments, evidence, whatever — the solution will be political.”

“Politics is politics, but breaking down people’s lives is cynical,” said Kuleba. “Cynicism is the concrete that keeps the whole house of cards together.”

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