Crimea (OpenDemocracy) – Three years on from Crimea’s annexation by Russia, brutal torture is being used to scare the peninsula into silence and submission.
Three years on since the Russian authorities took control of Crimea, Russian security forces’ actions on the peninsula increasingly recall methods that first gained infamy in the North Caucasus. Crimean Tatars and pro-Ukrainian activists disappear without a trace, people who protest the policies of the new authorities are arrested, Salafi Muslims are persecuted. Just like in the Caucasus, it’s difficult for journalists, rights defenders and lawyers to operate in Crimea — they are all subject to pressure.
Torture has come to Crimea, too. In particular, the Russian security services’ favourite method — electric shock. Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov and those arrested with him in 2014 have revealed the brutal torture they faced as part of an “anti-terrorism” investigation after the annexation of Crimea. Other Ukrainian citizens sentenced for their participation in Maidan, such as Alexander Kostenko and Andriy Kolomiets, have also been tortured.
The “Crimean terrorist” case, which saw Sentsov receive a 20-year prison sentence in 2015, is now being followed by the high-profile “Crimean saboteur” case. Since August 2016, many of those accused in this new case have stated that they were also tortured during the investigation.
In August and November last year, the FSB detained 10 people in Crimea. These men have been declared participants of “saboteur terrorist groups”, which were allegedly preparing bomb attacks on the peninsula under the aegis of Ukrainian intelligence.
Russian television broadcast confessions of practically all those arrested, in which the men said they had been working for Ukraine’s Chief Directorate of Intelligence (HUR). Later, several of the “saboteurs”, who managed to consult with independent solicitors, retracted their confessions and stated that they had given that testimony under torture.
The first arrests took place in August. On 10 August, the FSB announced that it had prevented terrorist acts in Crimea and “liquidated an agent network of the Chief Directorate of Intelligence of the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine”. Off the record, anonymous sources in the security service stated that, on 6 August, a group of saboteurs had sailed to Crimea from mainland Ukraine through the Sivash system of lakes. An FSB special forces unit was waiting for them and, in the course of a short firefight, an FSB colonel, Roman Kamenev, was killed alongside two saboteurs — the rest managed to escape. The names of the dead saboteurs are unknown.
The next day, the authorities started an operation to find the men who’d escaped — all border crossings were closed, local residents reported the presence of many soldiers and military vehicles. On the evening of 7 August, as anonymous sources told Kommersant, the saboteurs were found in the Sivash system. A Russian soldier, Semyon Sychev, was killed, and the group escaped again.
Initially, Russian news agencies reported different numbers of those arrested, but there was confirmation of the arrest of only four people — Redvan Suleimanov, Vladimir Prisich, Evgeny Panov and Andrei Zakhtei. None of these men were connected to the shootout with the supposed saboteurs, according to the evidence they gave. Moreover, according to the Russian investigation, they weren’t even part of the same group. The Ukrainian side categorically denies the possibility of Ukrainian saboteurs in Crimea, and HUR claims that the detainees had no links to the security services.
As the FSB claims, Redvan Suleimanov, a Crimean Tatar, was recruited by Ukrainian intelligence. Suleimanov allegedly helped inform the police that there were explosive devices planted at Simferopol airport and bus stations across Crimea. On the same day (30 July), he was arrested. Suleimanov is accused of assisting in the false reporting of a terrorist act — he has not been accused of sabotage and will be tried separately.
The remaining three men — Vladimir Prisich, Evgeny Panov and Andrei Zakhtei — have been accused of preparing sabotage acts and bomb attacks in Crimea. Least is known about Vladimir Prisich, a long-distance truck driver from Kharkiv — we don’t even know when he was detained. The Russia-1 television channel broadcast a clip of his confession, where Prisich claims that a HUR operative asked him to “illegally transport a 60-60-30cm box into Russian Federation territory”.
Andrei Zakhtei, 41, who was born in Lviv oblast, has for the past several years lived in Russia (he has Russian citizenship), and in summer 2016 moved to Crimea, where he worked as a driver. According to the FSB, Zakhtei was recruited by HUR to meet the inbound saboteur group with a vehicle. Zakhtei claims that he received a call requesting a pick-up for 6 August from the village of Suvorovo in northern Crimea. When he arrived, members of the FSB entered his car and then he drove them to the pre-arranged meeting place. “The FSB men exited the car and then the shooting started. I hid between the car seats,” said Zakhtei after the investigation.
Evgeny Panov, 39, who worked as a driver at the nuclear power station at Enerhodar near Zaporizhzhia, was actively involved in the political life of his town. He unsuccessfully ran as a candidate from the Ukrop political party, and fought as a volunteer in the Donbass. Panov was arrested on the night of 7 August, when he tried to enter Crimea at the Kalanchak border point by car. The FSB claims that he was “one of the organisers of the failed terrorist acts”.
All four men confessed to working for Ukrainian intelligence, and these confessions were broadcast on Russian TV. Panov and Zakhtei were transferred to Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, which is unofficially controlled by the FSB. This is where solicitors gained access to Panov and Zakhtei, who told them they had agreed to read prepared texts to camera under torture.
“They beat my head with an iron pipe, my back, my kidneys, my arms, my legs, they stretched my handcuffs till my hands went numb, they hung me up by my handcuffs: they bent my legs at the knees, brought the handcuffs to my front just beneath my knees and then put an iron bar under my knees. Then two men picked this bar and me up from either side, causing me incredible pain.” This is how Evgeny Panov describes what happened to him after he was arrested. His statement on torture was sent to Russia’s Investigative Committee, which is yet to react.
Further, Panov stated that “during the torture they put a clamp on my penis and then screwed it until I went numb”, and then beat and shocked him: “They attached some electrodes to my right knee, left leg and hip with tape, and turned the electricity on. I lost consciousness several times.” Vladimir Prisich and Redvan Suleimanov also stated that they had been tortured with electric shocks, although the details of the violence they experienced are still unknown.
You can still see the scars on Zakhtei’s hands left by the torture — these scars were confirmed by doctors who inspected him in Simferopol pre-trial detention. “The scars appeared after the FSB operatives brought my wrists back with the handcuffs,” explained Zakhtei. “When they shocked me, I was shaking a lot with the pain, and my wrists were cut as a result. They shocked me for two days. First they attached the electrodes to my knees and buttocks, turned the current on, and then demanded that I confess to committing a crime. I said that I was a just a taxi driver and drove to the place of the shootout on the request of a client, but they continued to torture me. Then they attached the electrodes to my genitals, and I lost consciousness.”
Ilya Novikov, who is representing Andrei Zakhtei, believes that the FSB is using these men to cover up the failure of the anti-saboteur operation and the deaths of security personnel — they just made the people they did find into the desired “saboteurs”.
“In the first days of the operation, they were actively searching for the diversion group across Crimea,” writes Novikov, “but the longer it went on, the more hopeless it became. Zakhtei, of course, was not released, and then they began to interrogate him about what he knew. But when it became clear that they hadn’t arrested anyone else, they made him a saboteur and beat a confession out of him.”
This is confirmed by the fact that before the FSB charged Panov and Zakhtei with sabotage, the two men were sentenced to 15 days of arrest for hooliganism — apparently, on 7 August they were arrested for swearing on the street in Simferopol. But by that time, both men were already in the hands of the FSB. The security services needed that time to finalise the story and torture the testimony out of them.
New arrests began on 9 November. This is when Alexei Bessarabov, Dmitry Shtyblikov and Vladimir Dudka were detained. The FSB once again announced that these men were “members of a diversion-terrorist group of Ukrainian intelligence” who “had planned to commit sabotage acts against sites of military and civilian infrastructure in Crimea”. All three men confessed to working for Ukrainian intelligence, and the confessions were shown on Russian television.
Dudka is a former captain of a Jupiter radio intelligence ship. Shtyblikov served in Ukrainian intelligence during the 1990s, and then together with Bessarabov worked in Crimea’s Nomos analytical centre, which focuses on national security and international relations. Shtyblikov is a fan of the Airsoft military re-enactment sport, and images of his Airsoft weapons were shown on television.
Two weeks later, another two men, Alexey Stogniy and Gleb Shabliy, were arrested apparently as members of the other group with Bessarabov, Dudka and Shtyblikov. RIA Novosti named Stogniy as a colonel in HUR, and Shabliy as a Ukrainian officer.
Finally, at the end of November, Leonid Parkhomenko, a former Russian Black Sea Fleet officer, was arrested. According to the FSB, Parkhomenko “gathered and transferred information comprising state secrets regarding the activities of the Black Sea Fleet” for Ukraine’s Chief Directorate of Intelligence. He has been accused of state treason.
As to the other men charged, the details of these charges and even which articles of Russia’s Criminal Code they’re being charged under are unclear — their legal counsel are extremely unwilling to talk to journalists and rights defenders. None of the men arrested in November have reported instances of violence against them. However, given how closed this case is and the fact that the men detained in August have been tortured, there are grounds to suggest that the latest wave of arrestees are also facing brutal treatment.
It’s still difficult to judge what the “Crimean saboteurs” have actually done and whether they have broken the law — the case is highly secretive, and the men’s legal representatives are forbidden from revealing details. But as we approach the third anniversary of Crimea’s annexation, there’s little doubt that Russia’s security services have broken the law in brutally torturing these men.