Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group
By ‘recognizing’ its proxy republics in Donbas and openly invading Ukrainian territory, Russia has unilaterally withdrawn from the Minsk Agreement. Since Russia had long used this flawed agreement as a lever of pressure on Ukraine, this is not necessarily a bad thing. It does, however, leave no agreed mechanisms for securing the release of at least 300 civilian hostages and 44 POWs, many of whom urgently need medical treatment.
During a press conference on 22 February, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov chose not to mention that Russia had thus violated yet another international agreement. Instead, he asserted that “the question of Minsk-2 is no longer on the agenda. In the first place is the issue of the guarantee of security for the Russian Federation”. He did not explain what recognizing two illegal formations, as well as invading Ukrainian territory, had to do with ‘guaranteeing Russian security’. He also left without comment the claim by Russia’s permanent ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebenze, that the recognition of the so-called ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’ [D-LPR] did not impinge upon the Minsk Agreements.
Ukraine’s Delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group (with the OSCE and Russia) has said that it will seek “a new format” for negotiations on Donbas and will consult also with the other countries, besides Russia, of the ‘Normandy Four (Germany and France).
Russia has long been blocking any progress on exchanges of prisoners, with the last real exchange having taken place in December 2019 (with a somewhat dubious and small exchange also in April 2020.) There was never any suggestion that Russia would comply with the clear undertaking in the Minsk Agreement of a release of prisoners on an all-for-all basis, but some hostages at least had been released. For many months, however, any progress on humanitarian issues had been stalled with the Russian delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group concentrating on trying to force Ukraine to directly negotiate with the Russian-controlled ‘D-LPR’. Ukraine’s position remained unwavering, and was proven correct by the staged puppet show in Moscow on 21 February leading up to Russia’s illegal ‘recognition’ of structures that it totally controls, finances and arms.
It should be noted that both Russian-occupied Crimea and the occupied parts of the Donbas (D-LPR) received ratings close to that of North Korea in Freedom House’s 2021 report. Not only were their ‘Not Free’ ratings significantly (over 50%) lower than government-controlled Ukraine’s score, but they were even lower than Russia, which is also ranked as ‘Not Free’. Russia has now ‘recognized’ essentially bandit entities which use horrific secret prisoners, like Izolyatsia in Donetsk, to torture both men and women, and which are holding, at the very minimum, 300 Ukrainian hostages. That figure is, in fact, likely to be very much higher since the families of a lot of hostages are too frightened to speak publicly of those who have been seized. During the publicity stunt, entitled ‘evacuation’ on 19 February, no attempt was made to evacuate all of these hostages.
Those mentioned here are essentially all imprisoned for their pro-Ukrainian position, however it is known that people can be taken prisoner simply to try to extract a ransom, or to steal their property.
The release of 70-year-old Vitaly Atamanchuk is almost certainly a matter of life or death. The former miner already had many serious health issues, including Bekhterev’s disease (a form of chronic rheumatic inflammation). According to his daughter, after torture and in the appalling conditions of militant imprisonment, this condition is progressing, and he is also suffering ever-more frequent heart palpitations and often loses consciousness.
Atamanchuk, who had never concealed his pro-Ukrainian position, was seized by ‘DPR’ militants, together with his wife and son Oleh, during the night from 4-5 September 2019 . His wife and son were finally released, however the torture Oleh had been subjected to had clearly taken a huge toll and he died within the year, aged just 49. Atamanchuk was later ‘sentenced’ to 17 years’ imprisonment for supposed ‘spying for Ukraine’. Even the one meeting during the entire period of his imprisonment with a lawyer was held in the presence of two guards and was also videoed.
A Makiyivka doctor, the 42-year-old was seized by the so-called ‘DPR ministry of state security’ on 10 July 2019, seemingly after the militants gained access to her social media accounts. She was taken to ‘Izolyatsia’ where she was held, and certainly tortured, for several months, before being imprisoned in Donetsk SIZO [remand prison] No. 5 She suffers from chronic spinal disease, causing problems for the static and dynamic functioning of the spine and urgently needs an operation.
Olena is turning 51 on 17 March and, after the torture she was subjected to during three and a half years in militant captivity, is in urgent need of proper hospital care. During the first three months after her seizure in August 2018, the militants used electric shocks, screws twisted into her knees, asphyxiation and mock executions to force her to ‘confess’ to what the pseudo ‘republic’ called ‘state treason’ and ‘spying’. They also ripped off her Star of David and subjected her to foul anti-Semitic abuse.
Izabella Piekh is increasingly concerned for her mother’s health. Olena is an epilecti who also needed treatment for resistant hypertension and severe angina even before her captivity. Now, due to the torture she endured, she is suffering from rapidly progressing osteoarthritis of the knee and hip joints; varicose veins and chronic thrombophlebitis, which can lead to vascular ulcers and even gangrene.
35-year-old Oksana Parshyna was in her third month of pregnancy when she set off for Donetsk to try to transfer into her sister’s name the ownership papers for the land on which her home, destroyed during the battle for Donetsk Airport, stands. This was an enforced move since the militants are essentially grabbling private property whose owners were forced to flee. Oksana was seized on 14 May 2021, with the militants now accusing her of ‘spying for Ukraine’. There was earlier information that her pregnancy was at risk, and there is currently no news about her.
Seized on 15 July 2017 and subjected to torture at Izolyatsia for the first 10 months, Matiushenko was ‘sentenced’ by a ‘DPR’ pseudo-court on 28 March 2019 to 10 years for supposedly collaborating with Ukraine’s SBU. Matiushenko, who was 52 when seized, had never concealed his pro-Ukrainian views. He is one of at least two hostages (together with Olena Fedoruk) from Kalmiuske (formerly Komsomolske), a city 50 kilometres south of Donetsk and Ilovaisk and just over 30 kilometres from the border with Russia. Witnesses are adamant that much of the shelling they experienced in 2014 came from the Russian Federation, and that after the battle near Ilovaisk (at the end of August 2014), the Russian military appeared in the city, bringing their own technology. It is very likely because of all that Russia has to hide about its direct military engagement in the conflict and the evidence of it at places like Kalmyuske, that both Matiushenko and Fedoruk remain imprisoned to this day.
Matiushenko was already in his 50s when seized by the militants and suffered from Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder which, in ordinary times, manifested itself only in a nervous tic. Due do the torture he endured, this has been causing muscular spasms which are physically and psychologically draining, and can cause breathing difficulties. Matiushenko also has an inguinal hernia which can block the blood supply to parts of the intestine unless treated. One of the other hostages is, by profession, a surgeon, and was able to manually reduce the hernia during an earlier emergency, but without proper treatment in hospital conditions this condition is life-threatening.
Olena’s two adult daughters left after Kalmiuske was seized, but she remained to care for her bedridden mother. It became impossible to continue running her flower shop, and she found work at the militants’ headquarters, where she was responsible for making inventories, for example, of chairs, tables and beds which were taken to local fighters and Russian military. She was arrested on 25 July 2017, and ‘sentenced’ on 16 August 2019 to 11 years’ imprisonment. The charges here and below, unless otherwise stated, were of ‘spying for Ukraine’.
Shevandin is a very well-known sportsman from Debaltseve who was seized by DPR militants over five years ago. The militants are refusing to give any information about his whereabouts, however the car he was driving is known to have been used by at least the Russian commander, ‘Zarya’, responsible for the seizure. Shevandin had left Debaltseve with his family after it was seized by the DPR militants (with heavy Russian military involvement). Unfortunately, they learned that his elderly mother had insisted on returning, and took the fatal step of returning to try to ensure that she was safe. Larisa Shevandin says that very few people knew of his plans, and she has to suspect that somebody turned out to be an informer as the DPR militants were clearly waiting for him when he arrived at a checkpoint in occupied Donbas on 1 May 2015. The family know only that Shevandin himself was taken on 3 May to Donetsk with the militants accusing him of spying for Ukraine. His captors have refused to give any information about where he is imprisoned and have not included him on the exchange list.
Stavtsev, who turned 35 on 2 June 2021, was seized by the so-called ‘DPR ministry of state security’ at his home, late in the evening of 6 October 2017 and was held and tortured for some time at Izolyatsia. During a ‘one-day trial’ on 18 February 2019, Stavtsev was ‘sentenced’ to 14 years, with the militants claimed that he had ‘spied for Ukraine and created a terrorist organization’.
An environmental chemist, Yurchak was 40 when seized by ‘DPR’ militants on 9 November 2017. It is now known that she was held at ‘Izolyatsia’ and doubtless tortured for almost a year, however at the time she simply disappeared and her parents had no idea what had happened to her.
Although the 15-year sentence received on 26 March 2020 was, as usual, for supposed ‘spying, it seems Yurchak was also accused of ‘insulting’ top militants, whose vehicles she refers to as ‘orc-mobiles’. From back in 2014, Yurchak was active on Twitter, making no secret of her pro-Ukrainian views and writing honestly about what she saw. She openly wrote, for example, about where the shelling was coming from and the direction in which military technology was being transported.
Almost all that we know about him and about Yuri Shapovalov comes from videoed ‘confessions’. Although the ‘sentence’ of 14 years is for the standard ‘spying for the SBU’, 31-year-old Podvezko appears to have been charged over alleged communications with a Twitter user whom both Russia and its proxy ‘republics’ do have cause to hate. Necro Mancer @666_mancer is one of the citizen journalists who has provided invaluable information about Russian military and pro-Russian losses in occupied Donbas; military movements, etc. He seemingly lives in Donetsk and began documenting the military movements and military losses that Russia has tried very hard to conceal. In their ‘prosecution’ of Podvezko, the DPR militants claim that Necro Mancer works for the SBU and that Podvezko passed him information.
The 56-year-old neuropathologist was ‘sentenced’ in DPR in April 2020 to 13 years’ imprisonment for posts on Twitter which were claimed to “destabilize the situation” in the unrecognized ‘republic’. He is known to have been held and tortured for some time at Izolyatsia. Although Shapovalov’s Twitter account was clearly hijacked by the militants following his seizure, the tweets from before January 2018 can still be seen here at Залишенець Донецький @relictDon. They show a person with clear pro-Ukrainian views and a deep antagonism to ‘Russian world’ ideology and the devastating impact this has had on Donetsk.
The so-called ‘DPR ministry of state security’ arrived at the flat the then 20-year-old shared with his mother on 10 April 2020, and took both the young man and his computer away. He was almost certainly targeted for the passionately pro-Ukrainian views he expresses on social media. There are particular concerns in his case, as Bohdan has a congenital heart defect.
Bohdan was seized, together with several other teenagers, in September 2016 and forced to give videoed ‘confessions’ of having carried out tasks for Ukraine’s SBU [Security Service]. Bohdan was just 17 at the time, with the youngest lads – 15. At the time of the last major exchange of prisoners in December 2019, the militants offered to ‘pardon’ the young men, but only on condition that they ‘repented’ and agreed not to leave occupied Donbas. Kovalchuk, however, refused, saying that he wanted to go to government-controlled Ukraine. Probably as punishment for this, he was not included in the last, April, exchange, and is spending a fourth year imprisoned, with the 10-year ‘sentence’ still standing.
There is real concern as to 30-year-old Sinchenko’s safety after news of his capture by the DPR militants on 29 June 2020. The young man, who was originally from Makiyivka, but was living in the Kherson oblast, was first taken prisoner when he returned to occupied Donbas to reinstate medical documents. The militants accused him of blowing up cigarette kiosks, and he was savagely tortured, including with the use of electric shocks, asphyxiation and being suspended for several hours by handcuffs.
He was released in the exchange of hostages and POWs on 27 December 2017, but later returned to Donbas, seemingly to continue partisan activities against the Russian proxy ‘republic’. He was seized again and savagely beaten in October 2019, with the so-called ‘DPR ministry of state security’ accusing him of involvement in the blowing up of a Donetsk radio tower in protest at the widespread use of torture in the DPR’s illegal prisoners.
Dmytro Sidelnikov, a PE lecturer at a Donetsk institute was seized on 27 January 2020 and remains imprisoned to this day. His family still don’t know exactly what the militants are accusing him of, however his brother, Denis, says that Sidelnikov was allowed to ring once and told them that he had been arrested for spying, and had said something about an exchange and mentioned Twitter.
Shelest is a lecturer in information technology at the Donetsk National Technical University. He was taken from the home in Donetsk that he shared with his mother on 13 September 2017 and ‘sentenced’ on 17 May, 2019 to 11 years for supposed ‘spying’. He has been held since then at Prison Colony No. 32 in Makiyivka,
Shabolda was seized by the ‘DPR’ militants on 24 June 2019 and has been imprisoned ever since. The militants not only tortured him, but threatened to bring his two small children in and cut their heads off if he did not ‘confess’ to spying. Shabolda’s wife and the children are now safely on government-controlled territory, but the 32-year-old remains imprisoned.
Boranov was 31, married, with a 7-year-old son, Platon, when he was seized by DPR militants on 9 September 2017. He had been a soldier in Ukraine’s National Guard for a year and a half, and according to his mother, took part in the liberation of Sloviansk in early July 2014. In September 2017, he was not formally a member of the Armed Forces and had told his mother that he was going to Kyiv for work. It is likely that there were things the young man was not at liberty to disclose. His wife and mother went through hell for two years before learning from a hostage released in December 2019 that Stanislav is alive, with the militants holding him under the name Oleksandr Bozhok.
Seized on 16 June 2020 by the ‘LPR ministry of state security’ and then ‘sentenced’ on 5 February 2021 to 12 years on the standard charge of ‘spying for Ukraine’. He had only been transferred to a SIZO in December 2020, and had almost certainly been held in a secret prison or basement before then and tortured.
The so-called ‘LPR ministry of state security’ reported 21-year-old Lilipa’s ‘arrest’ on 22 September 2020. They accused him of passing ‘state secrets’ to the SBU, with the latter having supposedly recruited him when he was 16.
The list, unfortunately, could be much longer. It is Russia that ultimately decides whether a hostage release will take place and maximum pressure is needed from other governments, with a number of lives quite literally at stake.
Olena Zaitseva was seized by ‘DPR’ militants in February 2019 when she tried to prevent them from taking her 19-year-old son Vladislav prisoner. Both mother and son remain imprisoned, and there are particular concerns about Olena’s state of health.
Volodymyr Cherkas vanished in September 2017 after returning to occupied Donetsk for his elderly mother, who was quite alone after the death of her husband. It remains unclear where he is now, but he was held and doubtless savagely tortured at Izolyatsia for over two years, and there are very real concerns about his state of health, since Cherkas has a heart condition and is receiving no medical treatment.
Viktor Shydlovsky has been held hostage in ‘DPR’ since 2019, although any real information has only recently become available. The militants are holding the 48-year-old Ukrainian in solitary confinement while denying that he is in their custody. They, and their Russian controllers, were, however, more than happy for him to be used for an anti-Ukrainian program on Russian state television.
Andriy Harrius was seized by ‘DPR’ militants on 11 December 2018 and has been held prisoner ever since. The 33-year-old former police driver, whose wife was about to give birth to their second child, is claimed to have been planning acts of sabotage for Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU] and could be sentenced by an illegal ‘court’ to death or life imprisonment.
Natalya Shylo knew that it was dangerous for her to return to occupied Donetsk because of her openly pro-Ukrainian position. Her elderly mother, however, had undergone an operation and needed her support. She was seized by ‘DPR’ militants in July 2021. The militants claim that the maths and physics teacher was ‘spying’ for Ukraine.
Details about some of the prisoners of war here: