news

Locked up in the Donbas A look at the mass arrests and torture of civilians in Donetsk and Lugansk

Meduza
Photo: Dmitry Korotaev / Kommersant

In the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, persecutions of civilians have carried on unabated since autumn 2015. Several thousand people have found themselves behind bars or, as they say locally, “in the cellar.” A person may be detained for various reasons: settling political scores, redistributing property, or sometimes they're simply arrested at random. Detained persons are tried under the 1961 Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic criminal code. At trial, they're even referred to in Soviet anachronisms as “spies and saboteurs.” On assignment for Meduza, Pavel Kanygin, a special correspondent at the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, investigated the wave of arrests in eastern Ukraine.

Frontline fighting in the Donbass came to a halt in autumn 2015. Despite the uneasy truce, monitoring missions from the OSCE and the UN report casualties among civilians have, for the most part, been brought to zero. However, the arrest and persecution of local residents by separatist security forces is now an everyday “peace-time” occurrence.

Repressions in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics (shortened to DNR and LNR respectively) are carried out on suspicion of political and religious offenses. Arrests for religious reasons tend to target the area's Protestant and Baptist communities. Local business owners unable to find common ground with the new governments are also thrown into the cellar, and rebel officials then “nationalize” their property. 

Most often, this means the relatives of high-ranking officials within the separatist governments receive control over these businesses. In the past two months, reports of arrests based on anonymous denunciations have been rising. Some try to free detainees by appealing to their acquaintances inside the new governments, while others hope to buy or bail them out. In the case of political arrests, however, no amount of connections or bribes is usually enough to get a prisoner released.

In Kyiv-controlled areas, fighters from so-called volunteer battalions also carry out “random arrests.”

OSCE observers document the effects of Ukrainian army shelling upon villages in Staromykhailivka (near Donetsk), February 18, 2016.
OSCE observers document the effects of Ukrainian army shelling upon villages in Staromykhailivka (near Donetsk), February 18, 2016.
Photo: Igor Maslov / Sputnik / Scanpix

Several organizations track human rights violations in the Donbass. The UN, OSCE, and the Red Cross all operate their own on-site missions. In a recent report, the UN emphasized that separatists did not allow any of the international missions free access to detention sites. The UN considers the detainee situation in the DNR and the LNR to be an issue of “great concern.” 

The unrecognized separatist republics have their own human rights ombudsmen: Daria Morozova in the DNR and Olga Kobtseva in the LNR. Ukrainian human rights activists also monitor the situation. Often, these groups all offer widely differing interpretations of what is happening on  the ground, making evaluations from independent volunteers and journalists all the more useful.

Below, I present facts about political arrests in the DNR and LNR, facts which I verified myself. The details of each story were told to me by the friends and relatives of detainees. It's worth mentioning that friends and family often refuse to share such information for fear of worsening a person's situation in custody. Only as a last resort do they appeal to the media, when they see no other option.

Harassing the citizens

The most recent wave of repression in Donetsk arrived in late January 2016. It marked the worst repression yet, coming in retaliation to unidentified men trying to blow up a Lenin statue in Donetsk. Lenin himself was not injured (the damage was to his pedestal), but the provocation was enough to set off a backlash. The next day, the head of the DNR, Alexander Zakharchenko, announced a large-scale investigation. He referred to the vandals as an “unknown group of Ukrainian saboteurs.” The investigation was entrusted to the DNR's Security Ministry, which had distinguished itself in the past by arresting the local opposition and expelling journalists and international organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders.

Over the next three days, the ministry unfurled a campaign to identify Ukrainian spies, saboteurs, and enemies of the DNR. Local media called upon people to come forward with any information about suspicious persons or conversations. The curfew was tightened, and officials banned driving and walking around after dusk. During the first night of the campaign, local investigators paid visits to dozens of apartments. According to rough estimates by local journalists, around 50 people were detained.

The damaged Lenin statue in Donetsk central square, January 27, 2016.
The damaged Lenin statue in Donetsk central square, January 27, 2016.
Photo: Mikhail Sokolov / TASS / Scanpix

In the middle of the night, security service representatives broke into the homes of volunteers, university teachers, and parishioners from the local Protestant community. Enrique Menendez, the founder of the Responsible Citizens volunteer group and a Donetsk business owner, says this time the security forces came for those who had long irritated the DNR leadership with their independent views.

Police have detained Regional Council Deputy and Responsible Citizens coordinator Marina Cherenkova, and they took Donetsk University Professor for History and Religious Studies Igor Kozlovsky. Later, Kozlovsky's wife spoke about a telephone conversation with a security service representative who said the professor had been taken on grounds of an “incorrect conversation on Facebook.”

The 64-year-old professor is known in eastern Ukraine as an authoritative theologian. He has taught at three universities, written more than 10 books, founded a Ayurveda-Yoga-Tantra school in Donetsk, befriended both local Protestants and Muslims, and received a black-belt in karate. But such civic activity from senior citizen raised the separatists' concerns. Alexander Khodakovsky, Security Council secretary for the DNR and the leader of the second largest armed group in the republic, said there were complaints about the professor's close contacts with “representatives of various religious faiths, including Muslims.” “It is not impossible that someone could use these sorts of relationships… to destabilize our situation from within.”

Marina Cherenkova has been imprisoned at the Security Ministry's detention center since January 29. Police have yet to bring charges against her, though there are hints about the case being built against her. In autumn 2015, the DNR press accused Cherenkova and Responsible Citizens of being “spies and saboteurs.” Locals created the Responsible Citizens group at the start of the war. It was one of the few volunteer organizations that provided humanitarian aid to remote areas within the Donbass. 

By cooperating with Doctors Without Borders, which was delivering medicine to the area, these activists were accused of being spies. The volunteer group had indeed worked with Doctors Without Borders, although most of the medicine and humanitarian aid they distributed was from the Ukrainian businessman Rinat Akhmetov. Before the war, Akhmetov was called “master of the Donbass.” Today, his political influence in the region is insignificant. By autumn 2015, local reporters were not allowed to mention any of Akhmetov's charitable acts or even his name.

Why the mass arrests began

Vladimir Ruban is well known as a prisoner-exchange negotiator (he calls himself a retired Ukrainian general). He believes the separatists are arresting people because “they want to gather the right amount for an exchange with Kiev.” In the DNR's jails, there are currently 24 prisoners of war confirmed for exchange. In the LNR, there are roughly 15 confirmed. At the same time, separatists imprisoned in Ukrainian jails number more than 1,500. Authorities in Donetsk claim this number includes around 200 noncombatants.

A source within the Russian Defense Ministry claims DNR Head Alexander Zakharchenko initiated the arrests of Donetsk's independent civil activists. His goal, allegedly, is to disrupt peace negotiations and maintain his grip on power. The Minsk Agreements made between Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine stipulate that in Spring 2016 the current leaders of the self-proclaimed republics must be replaced by non-military local politicians. The new leaders will be determined by local elections. The elections can only be held under two preconditions: (1) if a ceasefire is in place, and (2) if all exchanges of prisoners and releases of those unlawfully detained are complete.

Head of the POW Exchange Center, Vladimir Ruban
Head of the POW Exchange Center, Vladimir Ruban
Photo: Basil Deriugin / Kommersant

Confessions under torture

Donetsk detention centers hold around 1,000 civilians imprisoned over the past two years. In Lugansk jails, there are about 700. As officials in Ukraine say, many of these people have been persecuted for political reasons. The ombudsmen for the breakaway republics say there are no political prisoners in the DNR and LNR. They refer to the detainees as criminals: spies, saboteurs, and smugglers.

The unrecognized republics are using the 1961 Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic criminal code as their legal base. The separatists have already tried several people according to its statutes. Eugene Chudnetsov, a resident of the nearby town of Makiivka, was captured while serving in the Ukrainian Azov battalion. He received a 30-year-prison sentence for “attempting to overthrow the constitutional order” and “participating in extremist organizations.” Authorities later added a kidnapping conviction for which they gave no evidence. Chudnetsov was taken captive a year ago at the Shirokino frontline. Later in front of Russian TV cameras, Chudnetsov spoke of the crimes of Ukraine's counter-insurgency “punitive battalions.” He said he did not want to return to Ukraine. Chudnetsov's family and friends say he gave his confession for the cameras after being tortured by the republic's Security Ministry. They said he had 16 of his teeth pulled out with pliers. In an interview with a reporter for Russia 24, Chudnetsov appears to have no teeth and a black eye.

Chudnetsov was among the Ukrainian POWs to be exchanged for captured DNR soldiers. Prisoner exchanges are outlined in part six of the Minsk Agreements—they must be completed in time for local elections. For unknown reasons, DNR authorities decided not to exchange Chudnetsov. Instead, they sent him to a maximum-security prison.

Electroshock torture, mock executions, and “The Tram”

A released POW has described detention conditions at a former prison camp, which now serves as a DNR civilian jail. His recollections are detailed in a report issued by the UN Human Rights Mission in Ukraine. I received the report in early February. A lack of regular meals and no treatment for the sick is standard practice. There is also forced physical labor and torture. Prison guards and security officers abuse the detainees. The most common methods to control detainees are electroshock torture and mock executions. According to the released POW, both women and men were executed for real, as well.

The Russian Committee Against Torture says it has never encountered such a sophisticated form of torture. One of the committee's experts, Dmitry Utukin, says he has only seen similar torture methods used in the past by the KGB. For example, a person is placed in a small chamber, which is padded with soft, sound-and-light-absorbing materials. After several hours in the chamber, a person is brought to a state of mental and emotional shock.

Random victims

Vladimir Fomichev, a 22-year-old resident of neighboring Makiivka, was arrested on January 4. DNR security officers acted on an anonymous tip. Fomichev was visiting his parents for the New Year holidays from Kiev, where he attends university. Now, Fomichev sits in a DNR Security Ministry prison.

The student's friends and relatives say DNR authorities have yet to bring any official charges against him. Fomichev's parents have written to the Attorney General and Security Ministry of the breakaway republic to learn the status of their son. There has yet to be any answer. Sources at the newspaper Novaya Gazeta say one of Fomichev's acquaintances wrote a denunciation against him, alerting the authorities about statements on social networks “by Fomichev that cast the DNR authorities in a negative light.” 

Friends and relatives of Fomichev insist he was not a critic of the separatist regime. “He commented occasionally on everyday topics,” they say. Fomichev's account on the “VKontakte” is now closed. DNR security representatives searched Fomichev's Makiivka apartment and confiscated desktop-standing yellow-blue Ukrainian flags. He had bought them during the 2012 European football championships. The flags are now case evidence.

As is the case with Professor Kozlovsky, those close to Fomichev are afraid to speak publicly about his detention. “I will say too much, he will be killed, and I will be sent to prison,” said one of Fomichev's relatives.

DNR Ombudsman Daria Morozova denies knowing anything about Kozlov or Fomichev. "You know, we have, as in any normal country, a clarification period. It's 30 days, and consequently it is not possible to give any other information,” Morozova said when I called her for comment. “Let the parents [of the detainees] write a formal letter, then we will begin working on it.”

Ukrainian soldiers taken prisoner in Debaltseve, February 19, 2015.
Ukrainian soldiers taken prisoner in Debaltseve, February 19, 2015.
Photo: Alexander Khudoteply / TASS / Scanpix

* * *

A family of elderly farmers from the Debaltseve region went missing in March 2015. That month, the city and surrounding area came under DNR administration as a result of battle gains. In the regional village of Kommuna, 68-year-old Nikolai Jasinsky and his 61-year-old wife, Lyudmila Sokol, owned a large farm. On March 5, they arrived at a market in Debaltseve to sell their produce. They never returned home. After the disappearance of his parents, their 28-year-old son, Alexander, wrote a statement to the “DNR Police.” Instead of looking for the missing farmers, that evening security forces arrived looking for Alexander. According to his sister, Natalia, about 20 men from the DNR—or “Deneerovtsy” as they are negatively referred to—showed up and searched the house. Next, they dragged Alexander into the courtyard and began to beat him. “He screamed, ‘I will give you everything, take the equipment, the money.’ I don't know if he gave them the money or not,” said Natalia.

Alexander Sokolov's body was found a month later in an abandoned house on the outskirts of town. Natalia still doesn't know where her parents are.

After the DNR gained control of Debaltseve, local farmers were accused of collaborating with the Ukrainian army, who had been defending the city. In Kommuna, people believe Nikolai and Lyudmila were denounced anonymously. The denunciation was either from people wishing to settle scores or from competitors. During the battle for Debaltseve, a Ukrainian unit had been garrisoned near their farm. Soldiers came to the elderly farmers for water and milk.

The farmers' personal assets—a harvester and several tractors—have been confiscated by the DNR. The family home still remains with Natalia.

* * *

A UN report describes the abduction of an Orthodox priest. In February 2015, the priest was helping to deliver food to Ukrainian soldiers and residents in Artyomovsk. The territory was under Ukrainian control. The priest arrived at a separatist checkpoint by mistake. The separatists dragged the priest out of his car and forced him to lie on the ground. Several soldiers began to stomp on him and shoot into the ground next to his head. The priest was then taken to a neighboring village for questioning. After several hours of interrogations and severe beatings, the priest was thrown “into the cellar.” He was held captive in the cellar for 50 days together with 70 other prisoners.

Deneerovtsy dissenters

It is not unusual that prominent Deneerovtsy “dissenters” are also thrown “into the cellar.” Ordinary dissenters—who are not members of the DNR—are generally killed under mysterious circumstances or disappear without a trace. The most well known persecution of a Deneerovtsy is that of People's Council Speaker Andrey Purgin in autumn 2015 (before rising to prominence in the DNR, Purgin sold household goods in a suburb of Donetsk). After being apprehended, he spent four days in a republic prison. During this time, he was officially fired from all his DNR posts. After his release, he was no longer seen in public. People say Purgin's severe dismissal was, in fact, a set-up. Denis Pushilin, a former coordinator for the Donetsk branch of the MMM pyramid scheme, was Purgin's deputy. Purgin had started to criticize the Kremlin for having “abandoned ‘New Russia.’” Apparently, Deputy Pushilin had offered to get rid of his boss for the Kremlin.

This theme of an “abandoned ‘New Russia’” is a common and widespread driver of infighting among separatists. However, their apparent differences over the future of the “Russian world” is often just a cover. The reality is a fight over the banal redistribution of spheres of influence and manipulative schemes to secure property.

For example, at various times, the ministers of revenues and taxation, of agriculture, and of coal industry have been in DNR jail cells. In the LNR, ministers of housing, of agriculture, and of energy have been sent “to the cellar.” The longest detention of a prominent separatist is Oleg Orchikov's incarceration. Orchikov is otherwise known by his nom de guerre, “Vargan,” which means “mouth organ” or “Jew's Harp.” He was arrested in Donetsk in late 2014. Orchikov—who is a practicing Pagan—commanded the Slavic Unification and Revival battalion (or Svarozhich battalion for short). His zone of command was the Petrovsky region of Donetsk city. This area ran along on the frontline with Ukrainian forces. Somehow, though, he managed to find time to build a Pagan temple in the zone. He also named himself the temple's high priest. Problems with the DNR leadership arose for another reason: in 2014, the DNR's core transport and trading streams flowed through the Petrovsky region. A fight for control of these profitable streams broke out among various groups within the DNR. Vargan's differences with DNR leader Alexander Zakharchenko became apparent in autumn 2014. The now incarcerated Pagan-separatist claims it was because of his unwillingness to “abandon the Petrovsky region.”

Police arrested Vargan in November 2014 on suspicion of car theft and armed robbery. Orchikov says the Security Ministry has subjected him to severe torture, including waterboarding. “Thanks to the fortress of the Slavic spirit,” says Orchikov, he did not confess to anything. Friends and relatives of this extraordinary separatist created social network groups and websites to collect signatures of support. They even posted an open letter addressed to Vladimir Putin. So far, none of this has helped.

Denis Pushilin and Andrew Purgin, November 28, 2014
Denis Pushilin and Andrew Purgin, November 28, 2014
Photo: Igor Maslov / Sputnik / Scanpix

Persecutions in Ukraine

On the other side of the conflict, the arrest and detention of Russian citizen Oleg Khlyupin could be viewed as unlawful harassment. Ukrainian authorities accuse him of working for Russia's Main Intelligence Directorate. Unlike the attention that surrounds Aleksandrov and Yerofeyev, Kiev has barely mentioned Khlyupin's case. For a long time, even the Russian authorities were silent about his situation. Russia's consul general in Kiev has visited Khlyupin only once.

On February 20, 2015, Khlyupin left his home in Volgograd to visit the Lugansk region in Ukraine. He hoped to relocate his blind Russian father from the conflict zone, and return with him to Russia. Khlyupin arrived in Lugansk on a bus. He then took a taxi to reach the Novopskov region (controlled by Ukraine), where his father lived. But the taxi driver, seeing that Khlyupin had a large stack of rubles in his possession, drove him to a Ukrainian army checkpoint. The driver told the Aydar battalion troops stationed there he had a separatist in his taxi.

Khlyupin later told his court-appointed Ukrainian lawyer that he was tortured by Aydar battalion soldiers, who demanded he confess to spying for Russia. After several days of torture, Khlyupin was handed over to the Ukrainian Security Services. The security services declared him an agent for the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (otherwise known as the GRU) and sent him to a detention center in Kiev. Ukrainian investigators say Khlyupin has accepted all charges brought against him and confessed to being a GRU agent. 

Uncharacteristically, public acknowledgment of the detained Russian national came only two weeks after his arrest. At a press conference staged by the Ukrainian Security Service, Khlyupin told reporters he came to Ukraine as a freelance GRU operative and had been carrying out assignments for $4,130 (300,000 rubles) a day. The only piece of evidence pointing to Khlyupin's guilt is his own confession, says lawyer Valentin Rybin. 

Proceedings against Khlyupin began at the Shevchenkivsky District Court in Kiev. From the outset, he refused to testify, saying his original confession was given under torture. In late 2015, Khlyupin's case was unexpectedly transferred to a court in Starobelsk, an area in Lugansk under Kiev's control.

By the end of January 2016, Novaya Gazeta managed to contact the prison in Starobelsk where Khlyupin is held today in extremely severe conditions. He has pneumonia, and—before his upcoming court date—he was sent to solitary confinement. During his transfer from Kiev to Lugansk, Khlyupin spent time in a Kharkiv prison. At this prison, he was placed in a so-called “Press-Hut” (a term for a jail cell where the prison administration collaborates with other inmates to make cell conditions intolerable for a particular undesirable or dissenting prisoner). In the Press-Hut, prison officers demanded that he confess to being a spy.

Anastasia Kovalenko's case also raises concerns among human rights monitors. The Ukrainian Security Services identify Kovalenko, who had once worked as a cook in Lugansk, as a suicide bomber. She had intended to blow herself up in the center of Kiev, say investigators. The woman was apprehended in the Ukrainian capital at the end of December 2014. She apparently had 3 kilograms (6.3 pounds) of explosives in a handbag. Later, the Ukrainian Security Services released a video of Kovalenko reading a confession from a sheet of paper. Under her eyes appear what seem to be bruises. The security services, however, say it was only “shadows falling onto her face.”

I managed to get in touch with Kovalenko, who is being held at Lukyanivska Prison in Kiev. She said she travelled from Lugansk to the capital at the request of a friend, who was paying her to make a “delivery.” Ukrainian Security Services say this “friend” is Kovalenko's GRU commander. A UN Human Rights Mission report says Kovalenko gave her confession under threats, including the threat of rape. Meanwhile, Kovalenko's underage son remains without his mother in Lugansk.

The UN Mission views the situation for residents on both sides of the conflict—those territories under the control of the DNR and LNR, and those held by Ukrainian security forces—as difficult. In a recent report, the UN Mission spoke of a “persistent trend of arbitrary detentions […] carried out by law enforcement officials and the Ukrainian Security Services, as well as military and paramilitary groups (such as former volunteer battalions).” Those detained are often subjected to torture and various forms of abuse with a common disregard for due legal process. The UN is calling for “an end to such practices and improved human rights training for officers [of Ukrainian law enforcement agencies].”

Pavel Kanygin

Moscow