‘They won’t shoot him, but he’s going to do time’ How one man's attempt to flee war-torn Mariupol ended in prison, torture, and prosecution
Story by Elizaveta Nesterova from Mediazona. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.
When 30-year-old Mariupol resident Dmytro Lisovets and his aunt set out to escape their occupied hometown, there was only one route left: through Russia. Lisovets planned to find a place to live in Europe and then to come back for his parents, but after undergoing “filtration” at the Russian border, he was arrested and remains in Russian captivity to this day. According to his lawyer, Lisovets referred to himself as “patriot of Ukraine” while Russian border guards interrogated him. Lisovets also revealed that he had served in the Ukrainian Volunteer Army and, later, the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Russian authorities are now in the process of prosecuting Lisovets on charges of terrorism, extremism, and participating in an illegal armed formation. Meanwhile, his parents are still living among the ruins of Russian-controlled Mariupol. Elizaveta Nesterova, a journalist from the independent news outlet Mediazona, spoke to Lisovets’s family and lawyer about his situation.
It was April 3, and Anna Krotova (name changed) was sitting at a border checkpoint in the town of Veselo-Voznesenka in Russia’s Rostov region, waiting for her nephew to return from interrogation. It was taking longer than she had anticipated. A day earlier, the two had boarded an evacuation bus together in their hometown of Mariupol, which by then the Russian military had already destroyed with artillery fire. Anna and her nephew were headed to Rostov-on-Don — not because they wanted to venture into Russia but because the road further into Ukraine was closed.
Going east was now the only way to get to the West, to Europe.
“It was a scary ride; there was shellfire overhead,” Krotova recalls. At that point, Mariupol was almost completely under Russian control, but Ukrainian troops in the city center and in the Azovstal iron and steel works were still fighting back.
By nightfall, Krotova and her nephew, 30-year-old Dmytro Lisovets, had reached Veselo-Voznesenka. Like all other Ukrainian men on the bus, Dmytro was forced into filtration. The procedure entails long and sometimes humiliating interrogations, including thorough and intrusive inspections of each person’s tattoos, documents, and phone contents.
For a long time, Lisotevs didn’t return from the office where he’d been taken. When he finally emerged, he was in handcuffs, struggling to carry the bags he’d brought from Mariupol, says Krotova. After the officers took him away, she stayed outside of the office for a long time, unsure what to do. “[Eventually,] I went down the hallway, tried to find someone in charge, and stumbled upon some young guy. I broke into tears immediately, of course — we’d already been through so much. My sister had entrusted me with her son, and they were taking him away somewhere right in front of my eyes.”
The young worker asked, “Did you really not know that your Dmytro had served in the Ukrainian army? Not to mention in [the paramilitary group] Right Sector? He confessed to everything already.” According to Krotova, she knew that her nephew had served in the Ukrainian Armed Forces at some point, but she had never heard anything about him being in Right Sector. The young man wouldn’t tell her where Dmytro had been taken.
“Can you at least tell me that they won’t shoot him?” she asked.
“They won’t shoot him, but he’s going to do time.”
From that moment, neither Krotova nor Dmytro Lisovets’s other relatives have seen him or communicated with him.
Torture in Taganrog
Dmytro Lisovets was born and raised in Mariupol. Like everyone in the city at the time, he spent late February and March 2022 under artillery fire. In 2016, Lisovets joined the Ukrainian Volunteer Army, a paramilitary unit created by Ukrainian nationalist Dmytro Yarosh in 2015, after he resigned as the head of Right Sector. According to Lisovets’s lawyer, Grigory Kreshchenetsky, Lisovets joined the unit because he wanted to defend Mariupol, which found itself near the unrecognized border of the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic.” He was 24 at the time.
In early 2017, according to Kreshchenetsky, Lisovets left the Ukrainian Volunteer Army. A few years later, in 2020, he joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces as a contract soldier and served until 2021.
“He told them this himself [during filtration] because he didn’t believe he had committed a crime, and he was absolutely right about that,” Kreshchenetsky explained to Mediazona. “He told them directly that he’s Ukrainian and that he loves his city and his country. That’s why they arrested him.”
According to Kreshchenetsky, Lisovets never took part in combat; he just patrolled the border of the self-proclaimed “DNR.”
Immediately after Lisovets’s detention, Russian authorities charged him with disobeying a police officer and sentenced him to five days in prison, which he served in the city of Taganrog. “We all know how the Russians do it: They claim a person was disobedient when they need to arrest him quickly before his criminal case,” Kreshchenetsky said.
When the five days were up, Lisovets was taken to another detention facility in Taganrog, where he remained for almost two and a half months; according to his lawyer, he was held there without even the pretense of legality.
“In that detention center, they beat him, tortured him, and demanded that he admit to being in combat,” said Kreshchenetsky. “‘They don’t beat around the bush with Ukrainians. They burst into your cell wearing masks and beat everybody indiscriminately,’” he says Lisovets told him, adding that he and his cellmates are forced to stand in their cells from morning until night, forbidden to sit or even kneel. “And can you imagine what state a person is in after standing on his legs for eight to nine hours straight? It’s torture,” the lawyer said.
Lisovets was held in the second facility until June 15, despite the absence of any charges against him. It wasn’t until June 16, according to Kreshchenetsky, that officials opened a felony case. At that point, he was sent to another detention facility, this one in the building of the FSB’s Rostov regional office.
The FSB’s secret witness
Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) is conducting the investigation into Lisovets. He was initially charged with three felonies: participating in an illegal armed formation, participating in the activity of an extremist formation, and training for the purpose of carrying out terrorist activities. The charges stem from Lisovets’s former membership in the Ukrainian Volunteer Army, which Russia’s authorities consider an “illegal armed formation” and a part of Right Sector, which has been categorized as an “extremist organization” in Russia since 2014.
“All of these charges are unsubstantiated; all of them are based on the idea that Dmytro served in Right Sector, which is something [the Russian authorities] made up and which isn’t backed by any evidence,” Lisovets’ lawyer, Grigory Kreshchenetsky, told Mediazona.
In addition to Lisovets’ own “confessions,” Russia’s criminal case apparently relies on testimony from a classified witness who supposedly saw Lisovets patrolling the border between Ukraine and the self-proclaimed “DNR’’ as part of the Ukrainian Volunteer Army in 2016: “[The witness] testified that he’s a citizen of the DNR, that he was at the line of contact, and that he saw this guy through his binoculars. Then he found his last name on the Internet and established that it was Lisovets,” said Kreshchenetsky.
Lisovets’ lawyer also says that the resolution initiating these criminal proceedings includes language from investigators calling Dmytro a “proponent of the ideology of radical Ukrainian nationalism and Russophobia.” In a motion to terminate the case, Kreshchenetsky wrote that Lisovets “voluntarily left the Ukrainian Volunteer Army” in January 2017, and that he informed Russian authorities of his past participation in the formation during the numerous interrogations conducted as part of his “filtration.” Kreshchenetsky notes that an addendum to the laws Lisovets is being charged under states explicitly that confessing to the authorities absolves a person of criminal responsibility.
In every interrogation, according to Kreshchenetsky, Lisovets told occupation authorities that he served in the Ukrainian Army because he’s a patriot of Ukraine. At the same time, the lawyer said, not only was Lisovets never a part of Right Sector, but he also doesn’t support “ideas of nationalism and Russophobia.” When asked during one of the interrogations whether he needed a translator, Lisovets reportedly responded, “Why? Russian is my native language.”
“And now you have a person who’s spoken Russian his entire life being charged with Russophobia,” said Kreshchensky. “His mother is still in ‘liberated’ Mariupol. From whom has she been liberated? Only from water, from heat, and from gas, probably.”