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‘I prayed I wouldn’t be next’ The secretive prisons where Russia hides and tortures Ukrainian civilians

Source: Meduza

Over the last 14 months, Russia has abducted thousands of Ukrainian civilians, from volunteers and journalists to former soldiers and officials, and locked them in Russian prisons. The victims don’t have POW status, they’re not allowed to see their lawyers or loved ones, and most of them are impossible to communicate with from outside. Those who have managed to get out often still don’t know the official reasons for their incarceration or their release. In Simferopol alone, more than 100 civilian hostages (as they’re called by human rights advocates) are currently in captivity. Meduza special correspondent Lilia Yapparova spoke with Ukrainians who have been released from the facilities, as well as with their relatives and lawyers, to find out how this clandestine prison system works.

On the morning of May 9, 2022, Alexander Tarasov, then a prisoner in Simferopol’s SIZO (Detention Facility) No. 1, heard officers from the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service’s (FSIN) special forces shouting from outside his cell door: “Line up! Heads down, move out! Run, I said!”

Tarasov and his four cellmates lowered their heads and put their hands behind their backs. From that moment on, Tarasov saw only the ground, his own legs, and the officers’ boots. Bending low into the dolphin pose, he exited the cell and stood facing the wall. “Wider! Widen your legs, I said!” one officer said, hitting Alexander in the calves until he was practically doing a split.

Tarasov leaned his forehead against the wall, unable to think about anything but his burning ligaments. Then he heard a new command: “What holiday is it today? What day is it? Did your grandfather fight in the army? Answer the question!”

No matter what answer they gave, each of the inmates was given an electronic shock. “Your grandpas are turning over in their graves, you fascists.”

A prisoner’s family awaits her return

One year without Iryna The father of one of the thousands of Ukrainian civilians in Russian captivity refuses to lose hope

A prisoner’s family awaits her return

One year without Iryna The father of one of the thousands of Ukrainian civilians in Russian captivity refuses to lose hope

Several hours later, the special forces officers returned. This time they entered the cell itself, still armed with electric shock devices. Only the dog handler remained in the doorway; his dog lunged at the prisoners, wheezing and trying to break free of his leash, Tarasov recalled.

The officers accused one of Tarasov’s cellmates, Serhiy Derevensky, of being a fighter with the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist movement Right Sector. “They hit him with the shocker and demanded he sing [the Soviet song] ‘Victory Day,’” Tarasov recalled. “They kicked him in the gut: ‘Come on, sing!’”

Tarasov didn’t lift his head. “They teach you fast,” he told Meduza’s correspondent. “If your eyes even twitch, the shocker hits you in the base of the skull. So I just looked at my feet. And listened.”

“This Victory Day smells of gunpowder,” Derevensky began to sing, his voice faltering and shaking. The special forces officers were clearly pleased. “Keep going!” they chimed in every now and then, shocking him each time he got the words wrong.

“The charge seems to go through every muscle fiber in your body and erupt,” Tarasov said, describing how it felt to be shocked by the officers. “And your muscles keep on contracting afterwards. That’s the state he was in as he was singing.”

A message from the author of this story, Lilia Yapparova:

To find out how Russia hides the civilians it abducts from Ukraine’s occupied territories, I spoke to Russian intelligence officers and other insiders familiar with the system. That’s how we managed to find the secret prison that the FSB opened in Crimea soon after the 2022 invasion. And the few Ukrainians who have been released told me about the torture they experienced — and about the people who carried it out.

The Russian government has designated Meduza as an “undesirable organization,” making it a crime for Russians to support our work in any way. In order to continue investigative work like this, we need your help. Become a Meduza supporter today.

Hearing the singing, other guards began gathering around the cell. The dog handler kept listening, standing in the doorway, though the dog had fallen silent. “I prayed that I wouldn’t be next,” Tarasov said. “There were five of us in the three-person cell, and each of us was worried they would make us sing.”

When the officers finally left and the prisoners could raise their heads again, Tarasov saw that Derevensky had turned pale. “We were all sympathizing with him silently. But there was nothing we could do to protect him,” Tarasov said. “When you’re being abused like that, you’re forced to suppress your defensive reflexes. Because any resistance will just make it worse.”

Before his arrest in March 2022, Tarasov organized protest rallies against Russian occupation in Kherson. His cellmates were Ukrainian activists and volunteers who had helped the Ukrainian military; they were arrested on territories occupied by Russia at the start of the war. Practically none of them ever dared talk back to their guards; by May 2022, all of them had already been tortured. For example, Nikita Cheborat, a prisoner from the city of Hola Prystan, was shot in the legs with an airgun and forced to dig the lead balls out of his flesh with his own hands. Kherson resident Alexander Gerashchenko was given electric shocks. Nova Kakhovka resident Serhiy Tsyhipa was taken from a detention center to an FSB building in Simferopol, where he was partially strangled.

Tarasov, meanwhile, was tortured in the basement of a Kherson administration building (which Russian troops had already taken over at that point). His captors attached electrodes to his earlobes and sent an electric current through them as they demanded he name other protest organizers. According to Tarasov, the FSB officers referred to this procedure as “calling Zelensky.”

“After that, the FSB officer put a gun up to my temple and said, ‘It seems like you’re bullshitting me.’ And he cocked the gun,” Tarasov said. “It really wasn’t clear whether he was going to pull the trigger or not.”

Tarasov admits that part of him wanted to “straighten up and fight” during his interrogations in the Simferopol prison. “I remember one time when [my cell mates and I] were sitting there, and he took a spoon, dug around at the wall a little, and goes, ‘What if we make a shiv?’ And I go, ‘And then what? There are at least three special forces officers, plus the dog handler and his dog, and two guards. And locked bars at the unit’s entrance. And you don’t know the way once you get out of the SIZO.’”

It’s easy to get lost in SIZO No. 1. The isolation ward is located in a real prison fortress that was built in the 19th century; Tarasov describes it as a “dungeon from the Middle Ages”: “You’re led through endless winding corridors, through countless rows of barred doors. And with a bag over your head.”

The civilian hostages — as human rights advocates refer to the Ukrainian civilians who Russia is holding in detention centers without charging them with crimes or giving them POW status — are kept in a special unit on the third floor of the women’s ward, which is separate from the rest of the prison.

“There were rumors in the SIZO that we were super dangerous,” Tarasov recalled. “The real purpose of this was to keep information about us from getting out of the facility. One time we were walking past some inmate chefs, and the guards shouted at them to ‘turn away!’ and ‘face the wall!’”

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‘Part of the policy of terror’ How Russia captures civilians to achieve its aims in Ukraine

Russia’s endgame

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The total number of Ukrainians being held in Russian captivity who are officially considered neither criminals nor POWs is unknown. On March 17, 2022, when Tarasov and Serhiy Tsyhipa were first brought to the Simferopol facility, they were “met by an entire delegation” of prison employees; they were the first civilian hostages in the city, Tarasov said. In the months that followed, Tarasov was often woken by “shouts, groans, and commands,” the sounds that meant new prisoners had been brought to the unit.

“On the nights of new arrivals, they would torture people right in the cells,” he recalled. “An electric shock — the body falls down — ’Get up, get up!’ — another shock.”

‘They asked us about the Mariupol theater bombing’

In October 2022, the entire “Ukrainian” unit of SIZO No. 1, including Alexander Tarasov, was transferred to SIZO No. 2, a newer facility that’s separate from the first prison but is located on the same grounds. The new prison, designed specifically for Ukrainian hostages, had been brought into operation in such a hurry that some repairs were left unfinished, three former inmates told Meduza.

The windows of the prisoners’ cells had been painted over. “So that we could see neither the yard outside nor what time of day it was,” Tarasov said. “It was hard to get used to not even knowing whether it was the first half of the day or the second.”

The lights in the cells were left on 24 hours a day. A loudspeaker would regularly broadcast the prison’s internal rules and the Russian national anthem so loudly that Russian lawyer Emil Kurbedinov, who lives three kilometers (about 1.9 miles) from the facility, could sometimes hear it from his windows. The inmates were prohibited from sitting or lying on their plank beds from 6:00 a.m. until bedtime.

“They’re banned from praying namaz on those grounds, too,” said Amide, the wife of Crimean Tatar Ekrem Krosh, who was recently transferred to SIZO No. 2.

The prisoners are held in conditions of maximum isolation “to keep us from recognizing either our own people or the prison guards,” Tarasov said. “There was a brief period when we were able to talk back and forth through the vents,” he recalled. “We even started a ‘chat group,’ communicating between different cells. But then [one of the inmates named] Sasha, who sang the Ukrainian national anthem to the ‘chat,’ was sent to a punishment cell. And Nikita, who demanded [traditional holiday] Olivier salad through the ‘chat,’ was given a good beating on the legs.”

“[During interrogations, FSB officers] immediately begin with threats of a sexual nature. Or things like, ‘We’ll send you to Luhansk, where the death penalty is legal, and they’ll shoot you,’” said Maxim, another former prisoner. He could tell from the start that the agents interrogating him were roughly his age, so he didn’t take their threats seriously. “About 25 years old, like me,” he recounted. “They looked at my phone and started cracking up about how I’d bought crypto at such a high price.”

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In addition to FSB officers, Maxim was interrogated by an investigator from the Russian Investigative Committee. “[He was supposedly] born in Ukraine — he was from Irpin. But he really loves Russia,” Maxim recalled.

A group of security officers from Moscow came to the prison “with a bundle of records,” Maxim told Meduza: they wanted to know what he knew “about the Ukrainian military’s crimes in Mariupol.” Tarasov was asked similar questions. “They beat testimonies out of us for a criminal case on Ukraine’s violation of the rules of warfare,” he said. “They asked whether we know anything about the shelling of homes and of the Mariupol Drama Theater.”

The Russian authorities opened their first case against Ukraine under the Russian Criminal Code’s article on “the use of prohibited means and methods of warfare” in May 2014, during the Donbas War and shortly after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. In the spring of 2022, when the world learned of the civilian murders committed by Russian forces in Bucha, a source close to the Russian Investigative Committee told Meduza that after the “khokhols’ statements about war crimes in the suburbs [of Kyiv],” the Russian authorities immediately began “ripping [Russian investigators and agents in the occupied territories] a new one and demanding they expose crimes committed by Right Sector over the last eight years.”

“The Investigative Committee is extremely interested in asserting its own political weight — that’s part of why they created temporary branches on the occupied territories,” a Russian lawyer who works with Ukrainian civilian hostages told Meduza. “Military investigators from throughout the country were sent there and worked extensively: hundreds of cases, thousands of different stories; [Investigative Committee head Alexander] Bastrykin talks about it in public constantly.”

‘I’ll shoot you, occupier!’

In late March 2022, Alexander Tarasov and Serhiy Tsyhipa were awoken by prison guards in the middle of the night. They had an odd question for the inmates: did either of them know Spanish? “Serhiy knows Portuguese,” Alexander recounted to Meduza. “They asked him to go comfort a Spaniard who had just been brought from Kherson.”

The new civilian hostage turned out to be a man named Mariano García Calatayud, a retiree from Spain who had been living in Ukraine since 2014. “Tsyhipa told him that everything would be fine, of course,” Tarasov said. “But Mariano was in shock: he didn’t understand where he was or who all of these people yelling at him were. He looked like an abused animal.”

Calatayud, who knew neither Ukrainian nor Russian, was constantly given electric shocks as punishment for not understanding the guards’ commands. “They taught him all of those positions: ‘In line,’ ‘Out,’ ‘Head down.’ From my cell, I would hear the guards and the special forces officers laughing: ‘It just took a few shocks to teach a Spaniard Russian,’” Tarasov recounted.

Tortured in their hometown

'I heard my husband’s inhuman screams' Kherson residents recount the torture they experienced under Russian occupation

Tortured in their hometown

'I heard my husband’s inhuman screams' Kherson residents recount the torture they experienced under Russian occupation

Calatayud spent his 75th birthday in the detention center. His lawyer, Anatoly Fursov, told Meduza that his client has problems with his heart, but that the prison guards took away his medicine. “He would constantly call for the doctor in Spanish,” said Tarasov. “And sometimes it would take a week for a doctor to come. Then the smell of Corvalol would linger throughout the whole corridor.”

The Spaniard quickly became the cell’s tidiest inmate, wiping the shelves and door jambs before dust even had time to settle. His cellmate Evgeny Yamkovoy believes Calatayud was trying to “demonstrate” to the guards how compliant he was. “They singled him out for beating in the detention center. I saw his scars from the dynamo [electric shock device]. And one time the guard dog latched onto his leg. When it started to bleed, he couldn’t stand it, and he punched [the dog] in the head. Then the dog handler let him have it.”

Before he was brought to the Simferopol prison, Calatayud behaved fairly boldly around Russian security officers. “In the [Kherson] detention facility, when he was first taken there for protesting, he would say, ‘Glory to Ukraine!’ and do his exercises,” Calatayud’s common-law wife, a 39-year-old Kherson resident named Tatyana Marina, told Meduza. “The local guards lost their minds: he called them ‘puta madre’ — roughly ‘motherfuckers’ — to their faces.”

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Marina said Calatayud first moved to Ukraine in 2014 in order to transport humanitarian aid to orphanages that were close to the front line in the eastern part of the country. “He called Putin ‘señor de la guerra,’ or ‘the warlord’; he just couldn’t take the injustice of it. He worked in City Hall back in Valencia, but he had already retired, and he came [to Ukraine] to do what he could to help the situation,” Tatyana Marina said.

Marina said her husband’s trips to the contact line seemed to muffle his self-preservation instinct: “In the initial days of Kherson’s occupation, he acted like a lunatic. Whenever he saw a cordon of Russian troops around our regional administration building, he mimicked guns with his hands, like a little kid, and threatened them [in Spanish]: ‘I’ll shoot you, occupier!’ I’d get so scared my palms would start sweating.”

A prison within a prison

Russian lawyers who spoke to Meduza noted that Crimean prison employees often deny that there are Ukrainians in the detention centers at all: “You go to the facility, the girl puts the name in the system in front of you, she shows you the screen — and it can’t find the person.”

Some human rights workers (both in Russia and in Ukraine) believe the prison workers aren’t intentionally hiding anything when they’re unable to find civilian hostages in their databases. “They may be some kind of separate institution within the facilities that the FSIN is just helping to operate,” speculated Russian human rights advocate Roman Kiselyov.

Meduza has learned that this kind of auxiliary institution does indeed exist within SIZO No. 2. According to a former inmate in the prison and three lawyers who work in Crimea, some Ukrainians are being held there in a special unit containing 10 cells (enough for about 20 people). “Right in front of the entrance to the hallway that leads to the unit, there’s a list of the individuals who are allowed inside,” said lawyer Alexey Ladin, who represents multiple Ukrainian civilian hostages. “In other words, not even all FSIN employees are allowed in.”

Another Crimea lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous, said he noticed a sign on a door inside a SIZO No. 2 administrative building that reads “SIZO No. 8, Office, FSIN RF.” “But I don’t know what it is. The door there is always closed. And officially speaking, there’s no SIZO No. 8 in our region.”

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Torturing their compatriot

Bruised kidneys and chemical burns How Wagner Group spent hours torturing a Russian soldier they mistook for a Ukrainian spy

But according to official records, a SIZO No. 8 does in fact exist in Crimea, and it’s registered at the same address as SIZO No. 2. According to an extract from Russia’s Unified Public Register of Legal Entities (EGRYuL), the facility opened on October 24, 2022 — months after the start of the full-scale war — on the basis of an FSIN order.

According to the EGRYuL data, SIZO No. 8 is run by a man named Rauf Idrisov. A person with the same taxpayer ID number previously worked at a prison in Vladikavkaz that shares an address with the FSB’s North Ossetia branch, and local media and human rights advocates have referred to that institution as “FSB-controlled.”

A source close to the FSB confirmed to Meduza that a separate, FSB-controlled unit has been created within the Simferopol detention center. “’Number eight’ is for political cases,” he said. But which of the Crimea prisoners are being held in the clandestine prison, and what plans the Russian authorities might have for them, is unclear.

‘A method they tested in Chechnya’

Ukrainian hostages are being held not just in Crimea but also in numerous Russian regions, according to Russian lawyers and human rights advocates who spoke to Meduza. And while the Ukrainians being held in Crimea are overseen by the FSB, those in Russia proper fall under the purview of the Russian Defense Ministry’s Main Military Police Directorate.

It was that agency that sent responses to lawyers’ requests about numerous Ukrainian prisoners, which the lawyers shared with Meduza. The majority of them were signed by Major General Vitaly Kokh, the deputy head of the Military Police.

According to Andrey Soldatov, an expert on Russia's intelligence services, it’s no surprise that the Russian Defense Ministry and the FSB share responsibility for keeping records of the Ukrainian hostages. He told Meduza that the military police are overseen by the Military Counterintelligence Department, a division of the FSB. A source from the FSB confirmed that the agency’s counterintelligence service oversees the Ukrainian hostages.

Counterintelligence units exist within every military unit, Soldatov said, and when a unit is sent to the front, its assigned counterintelligence unit also goes to the combat zone, where its agents “break into temporary operational groups.”

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Russian counterintelligence has been using this approach since the start of the war, he told Meduza. “The ‘filtration’ [of Ukrainians], work with local populations, that was all part of their job,” he said. “To protect the security of the Russian troops, they had to find and torture informants. And restore their intelligence networks, of course. And doing that through filtration camps is easy and effective: it’s a method they tested in Chechnya. They suck in thousands of young Ukrainians like a vacuum cleaner, recruit some of them, and then release them all.”

Working with incarcerated Ukrainians who’ve been abducted from the occupied territories is a “natural extension” of the mission Russia’s military counterintelligence units are pursuing on the front line, Soldatov said.

It’s unclear exactly how many Ukrainian citizens remain in Russian detention centers. According to Iryna Badanova, an expert in the Ukrainian General Staff’s Department for the Release of Prisoners, there could be more than 3,000 civilian hostages. Dozens of them, Badanova has said, have died in custody.

The Russian Defense Ministry, the FSB, the FSIN, the Kremlin’s press service, and the Russian-installed authorities in Crimea did not respond to Meduza’ requests for comment.

Story by Lilia Yapparova

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