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As details about illegal detentions in eastern Ukraine emerge, so do questions about the accountability of those who ordered them. From Hromadske.by Anastasia Stanko, Anna Tokhmakhchi, and Anastasia Kanariova 21 March 2018
In July 2016, two international human rights organizations – Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International – published a report titled “You Don’t Exist.” The report talks about illegal detentions on both sides of the contact line in eastern Ukraine. According to these organizations, the Ukrainian side detained people in the building of the Kharkiv department of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) in northeastern Ukraine. However, the SBU denies this information. During this time, we at Hromadske have been gathering evidence to confirm or reject these facts.
Why, after four years of the Russo-Ukrainian war, through all the outrage, torture, and human rights violations, is it important for us to also know if these secret SBU detention facilities exist? Unlike the self-proclaimed Donbas republics, Ukraine follows the rule of law and there should be a legitimate reason for detaining someone. If these secret SBU detention facilities really exist and separatists have been detained there, why haven’t there been any formal charges? Why hasn’t anyone been tried? Were people being held for the purpose of prisoner exchanges? If so, have any Ukrainian soldiers been exchanged for one of these people detained in the SBU facility? And if not, what was the reason for detaining people like this?
Watch our documentary film investigation, where we break down the facts that confirm the secret detention of people in the compounds of the Security Service of Ukraine.
Are You a Separatist?
After the report was published, we asked for permission to come to the SBU’s Kharkiv department, and we were allowed to visit and film the facility in January 2017.
Before we went there, we traveled to the small town of Ukrainsk in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. Three men – Viktor Ashykhmin, Mykola Vakaruk, and Yuriy Iliukhin, who all live in Ukrainsk – say they spent over 18 months, from December 2014 until July 2016, in the pre-trial detention center.
“[A] representative from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic came to us on 1 May and started asking who would be able to help with the referendum. When they found out that I was a former Ukrainian city councilor, they asked me to help with this. I thought there was nothing wrong in that. I ended up carrying out the referendum. Actually, that’s what I was accused of,” said former miner Viktor Ashykhmin explaining why he was detained. [Editor’s note: Referendums on the status of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts took place on 11 May 2014 in many towns under the control of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics. The local authorities claimed an overwhelming number of people voted for self-rule, but the referendums were widely condemned as illegitimate and no government has recognized the results.]
Mykola Vakaruk was arrested for putting a DPR flag on top of the Ukrainsk city council building in May 2014. Yuriy Iliukhin was accused of standing alongside the separatists at one of the checkpoints.
The men claim they didn't receive official indictments. After several interrogations with the use of force in Kramatorsk, Ashykhmin, Vakaruk, and Illiukhin were sent to the Kharkiv SBU department.
“They put me in front of a prison cell saying ‘take the bag off.’ I took the bag off my head. The door opened in front of me. There were 15 people in the cell. The guys started smiling and asked ‘are you a separatist?’ ‘Yes, I’m a separatist,’ I told them. ‘Don’t be afraid, only friends here,’ they said,” Ashykhmin tells us.
Mykola Vakaruk claims that he was more than just detained in the Kharkiv SBU building. SBU employees took him to a hospital in Kharkiv, and, according to him, he had a kidney operation there.
In total, he spent over a month there guarded by the SBU staff. He was also given a fake name: Serhiy Petrovych Ivanov.
A year later, we came with Vakaruk to the same hospital, the Kharkiv regional clinical center for urology and nephrology. Some nurses did recognize him.
“Of course I remember you. I bandaged you every day,” one nurse told him.
“You know that my name is not Seryozha, right?”
“Well, I would say I had an inkling… Well, good job recovering, you look well.”
Vakaruk also recalls that he met Kostiantyn Bezkorovaynyi from Kostiantynivka, a city in eastern Ukraine. Bezkorovaynyi is the only one whose detention was reported by the SBU. The SBU said that Bezkorovayniy – a “crazy communist” – wanted to contaminate the water reservoirs of Kostiantynivka with potassium cyanide. They did not publically report on the detentions of the others.
Vakaruk and Ashykhmin say they were forced to write statements in Oleksandr Pyvovar’s name. Pyvovar was the head of the Kharkiv region’s SBU. They had to say that they were recruited by the SBU and wouldn’t tell anyone where they were kept.
“We were told that we wouldn’t go home unless we signed them. We complied with everything just so that we could go home,” Ashykhmin says.
We tried to contact Pyvovar, but the SBU would not help us with this. In July 2016, the president signed a decree to fire him. The same day Eduard Kritsyn was announced as his successor. It was Kritsyn who showed us the pre-trial detention center in January 2017.
The KGB Guy With an Umbrella
The SBU premises form a square shape with a yard and staff parking in the middle. There is a monument in the middle of the yard, a monument to a state security employee: he is portrayed as a man in a coat and a hat, holding an opened umbrella. This monument was erected in independent Ukraine.
The view of the monument is blocked from the streets. But you can see it from the windows of one of the SBU buildings that face the yard. Kritsyn refers to it as a monument to a "Chekist" (“KGB guy”).
If you stand with your back facing the monument, you can see bars over the windows located on the second floor of the building. That’s where Kharkiv’s SBU pre-trial detention center is. This building has been here since 1962. It was built specifically for the Soviet Ukrainian department of the KGB. Back in those times, the building was referred to as a “place where famous people hold unpleasant meetings.” Many artists whose style differed from socialist realism were interrogated here.
Kritsyn says that the detention center has not been in use since Soviet times. Other SBU detention centers were closed down too, apart from the Kyiv one. The Kharkiv detention center is made up of eight prison cells: four smaller ones, which could fit two people, and four bigger ones fitting four. When our camera crew managed to get inside on 16 January 2017, one of the bigger cells had a ping-pong table, and another one: a couple of exercise machines. Kritsyn explains that he brought these over in the past few days, so that his co-workers could work out.
The cells and the halls were renovated. Kritsyn explains that this was done for Euro 2012 – when Kharkiv was one of the host cities for the European football championship.
“These rooms were renovated in time for Euro 2012. Apparently for the VIPs – foreigners who could have caused riots. … But not a single person was kept here since everyone behaved,” Kritsyn had earlier told journalists.
When we asked them when the renovation work took place, who carried it out, and how much money was spent on it, but they said that they haven't kept the documents three years on, complying with the law. We asked the SBU’s Lviv and Donetsk departments whether they had the same work done to their defunct pre-trial detention centers for their VIP criminals during Euro 2012. They said that they hadn’t.
Ashykhmin, Vakaruk, and Iliukhin all say the renovation works were not done in 2012 but much later, while they were serving their “sentences” there. They claim that Yuriy Tyshchenko, a landscape designer from Druzhkivka, was in charge of it. He is also an inmate and was accused of patrolling the city streets alongside the Russian-backed separatists. His charges were also unofficial.
Tyshchenko assures us that he, indeed, fitted the tiles and installed the shower units. He says the repair works were for the sub-officers who guarded the prisoners.
The cell doors inside the Kharkiv SBU detention center were painted gray, with some beige visible underneath.
The detention center guard explains: the doors were repainted for Euro2012 because they were dirty.
Iliukhin, Vakaruk, and Ashykhmin say that the doors were beige when they were kept in there.
They also say that they tore a hole through the plastic windows in cell numbers 1 and 3.
“You can see the inner yard and the monument through this hole,” Iliukhin says.
We found this hole in the first cell.
“Another interesting moment. These are alarm buttons for calling the guards, they are integrated into the ventilation. With the hood. Because, if they cut off the ventilation hood, then our alarm buttons would not work either,” Vakaruk says.
On 16 January, 2017, when we tried to switch on the light inside the pre-trial detention center, the ventilation system switched on. Kritsyn could not explain why it was operating there.
Kritsyn says that he started his new job with an employee review. He says that all the details mentioned by the media and rights protection groups were not confirmed. The Kharkiv SBU head explains the information provided by Ashykhmin, Vakaruk, and Iliukhin in this way:
“The thing is that, regardless, a large number of people have been detained here at some point in the past. Naturally, it’s not a problem for people to find the layout, how the cells are arranged. It’s possible if you put your mind to it. I’m not going to say on camera who could do this.”
“So you’re saying that 10 people told outright lies to the international organizations about the fact that they were recruited by, for example, the Russian Federation?” we ask him.
“I cannot confirm that.”
It’s been a year and a half since the “You Don’t Exist” report was published. At the request of the international organizations, Ukraine’s Military Prosecutor’s Office opened a criminal investigation into the illegal detention of people. Kostyantin Bezkorovaynyi was the only one recognized as a victim. The other people who claim they were held within the walls of the Kharkiv SBU were not given any official status. In January 2018, in response to our question about the progress of the case, we were told that the case had already been closed in March 2017, due to the absence of any crime committed.
The actions carried out by the detention center inmates fall under Article 110 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine: claims to territorial integrity. If proven guilty they could face up to three years in prison.
Both Ashykhmin and Vakaruk never denied the crimes committed in May 2014.
“If they had sentenced me for carrying out this referendum, I would have served the sentence. I would have at least known when I’d get home. My wife would come to visit me. But instead we didn’t communicate (at all) during these 600 days,” Ashykhmin says.
From Article 110 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine:
1. Willful actions committed to change the territorial boundaries or national borders of Ukraine in violation of the order provided for in the Constitution of Ukraine, as well as public appeals or distribution of materials with an appeal to commit any such actions, shall be punishable by restraint of liberty for a term of up to three years, or imprisonment for the same term.
But why were they detained? Ashykhmin, Vakaruk, and Iliukhin all say that it was for the sake of future prisoner exchanges – so that Ukraine got back its soldiers and civilians who were imprisoned on the separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk. But they themselves were never swapped.
“We got to Kharkiv on 23 December 2014, and were summoned for interrogation. I was so happy: from basements, from battalions, to a legal environment. But no such luck. The investigator looked at the documents and said: what’s the point in reading them, any lawyer can prove [that it’s nonsense.] As in, that I will be exchanged,” Vakaruk says.
But the exchange never happened.
The men say they were let out of the Kharkiv SBU detention center in three groups. Between July and August 2016, 18 people were released in total. They claim that after this the Kharkiv SBU detention center had no one left inside.
Vakaruk and Ashykhmin say they were taken to a place somewhere between Kostiantynivka and Druzhkivka.
“I asked them, ‘What about the documents about where we were kept?’ ‘Tell them you were on a work trip,’ they said while handing over 100 hryvnia ($3,80).’ ‘What great pay,’ I retorted, ‘100 hryvnia for 600 days,’ ” Ashykhmin recalls smiling.
The SBU continues to deny these people’s detention.
P.S. Editorial note:
The facts we've gathered give us reason to believe that the secret SBU prison in Kharkiv did exist from 2014 to 2016. But why?
The people we have talked about became neither defendants in a criminal case nor were they swapped for Ukrainian soldiers captured by militants. Did their detention change anything? Did it improve our safety? Or was justice served? If these people were never given a status – does that mean anyone could have taken their place? If the existence of such detention centers is kept secret and publically denied and no one in law enforcement investigates it, how can we know that other important information isn’t hidden from us?
The illegal detention of these people – bypassing both the courts and investigators – has only caused trouble for Ukraine. The West is accusing us of using the same methods as Russia, which we’re fighting against. And now Russian media have received a new great topic to cover – and this time not a fake one.
Ukraine, unlike the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, is indeed a rule-of-law state. And a rule-of-law state cannot violate its own or international laws. One question remains: who will be held responsible for this?
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