| A screengrab shows late journalist Gonzalo Lira holding up a peace sign in a video he uploaded on his YouTube channel on October 17 2022 Image by YouTubetheroundtablegonzalolira5818 | MR Online A screengrab shows late journalist Gonzalo Lira holding up a peace sign in a video he uploaded on his YouTube channel on October 17, 2022. (Photo: YouTube/@theroundtablegonzalolira5818)

The Invisibles: About mass persecution of dissidents in Ukraine

Originally published: Pressenza on June 21, 2024 by Pavel Volkov (more by Pressenza) (Posted Jun 24, 2024)

“We insist on respect for human rights,” Chilean President Gabriel Boric made such a message at the peace summit in Switzerland. Indeed, the current Russian-Ukrainian military conflict has catastrophic humanitarian consequences and the issue of respect for human rights within the framework of this conflict is perhaps the main issue.

| Terrorists Without Terrorism | MR OnlineIn January 2024, thanks to Jeffrey Sachs and Elon Musk, the world learned about the death of the American and Chilean blogger Gonzalo Lira in a Ukrainian prison. According to the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU), the blogger “denied Russian war crimes,” accused the Armed Forces of Ukraine of shelling Ukrainian territories and called the Kiev regime “neo-Nazi.” He was captured on suspicion of “justifying Russia’s armed aggression” (article 436-2 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine), which implies up to eight years of imprisonment. In other words, Gonzalo Lira was prosecuted for his views and opinions.

Gonzalo died in prison due to the lack of medical care, and a global (primarily, American) audience learned about this tragic story thanks to his American citizenship. Unfortunately, people all over the world know nothing about thousands of Ukrainian citizens who—similar to Gonzalo—ended up in Ukrainian prisons for their opinions and views. The first wave of mass repression in this sense happened after the Euro(Maidan), the unconstitutional overturn of power in Kiev in 2014, which half of the country did not welcome; the second one occurred in the aftermath of Russia’s launch of a “special military operation” (SMO) in February 2022, which many Ukrainians interpreted as Russia’s logical response to Ukraine’s unwillingness to implement Minsk peaceful agreements and stop the war in Donbass. These alternative interpretations are outlawed in Ukraine nowadays; those trying to propagate them are repressed and silenced.

Terrorists Without Terrorism

| Volkov | MR OnlineAs a journalist who did not welcome the Euromaidan, I fell into the first wave of repression. In 2017-2018, I spent 13 months in custody, risking either a life sentence or 15 years of imprisonment for “separatism” and “terrorism.” The former was about my publications on the causes and implications of the Euromaidan, which I considered a coup d’état; the latter was about my reports from Donbass after Ukraine launched the so-called “anti-terrorist operation” (ATO) there to punish local people for their protests against the Euromaidan and their unwillingness to accept the overturn of power in Kiev. Despite that my reports were primarily about the sufferings of Donbas people who were begging for peace, I was arrested as an “enemy of Ukraine.” I was lucky: in the course of court hearings, it was proved—to the outrage of Euromaidan “activists” who called me a criminal and a traitor—that my publications were not a crime, that the Ukrainian Constitution guarantees the right to express any opinion.

My story—whose happy ending was ensured not only by the honest work of lawyers but also by the heroic struggle of my relatives trying to attract wide international attention—is highly problematic in one important sense. It is unique. There are no similar positive decisions on the cases of journalists accused of “separatism,” “terrorism,” and “collaboration with the enemy” in the post-Maidan Ukraine, although all these cases are essentially the same: they are about silencing oppositional opinions by unconstitutional means. In this sense, the pre-Maidan Ukraine and the post-Maidan Ukraine differ radically. In the former, there were only a few criminal cases on politically motivated charges; the subjects of these cases were primarily the representatives of political elites (as in the case of the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko who was imprisoned in 2011). In the latter, politically motivated criminal cases began to number in the hundreds; 2022 became a turning point after which thousands of ordinary people came to be prosecuted for having alternative views.

I would not dare to substitute my opinion for court decisions, but my investigations of these decisions during my trips to Ukraine in 2018-2020 pointed to a very weak evidence base provided by prosecutors. My observations were only supported by various monitoring reports for human rights organizations: people have been tried under “separatist” and “terrorist” articles for laying flowers at the Soviet monuments; paying taxes for DPR (Donetsk People’s Republic); organizing “Pushkin Balls,” and so on. Any activity that can be interpreted as the glorification of the Soviet past, the valorization of the Russian culture, or the recognition of the authorities of rebellious Donbass came to be acknowledged as “separatist” and “terrorist.”

After February 2022, the situation deteriorated significantly for the Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine, especially those sympathetic to Russia or having strong family ties with the Russian Federation, as well as for Russian citizens who found themselves on the territory of Ukraine at the time of the conflict outbreak.

In the spring of 2022, when I was still in Zaporozhye (a city in the southeast of Ukraine), a strange message came to me presumably from an anti-Maidan activist Sergei, whom I knew personally. He suggested me to collect information about Ukrainian right-wing radicals in the light of the ongoing Russian offensive: “We should wrack banderovtsi [the followers of Stepan Bandera, a founding father of Ukrainian nationalist ideology]! Send me the information.” It looked like a provocation, and it was a provocation—Sergei’s telephone was used by the SSU to send messages to his contacts. As I learned from mutual friends several days later, Sergei, after being kidnapped by the SSU and beaten all night in the basement, was robbed and thrown out in the morning into the street.  It was this and similar stories that persuaded me to leave Ukraine. If I had not been able to flee, I would have ended up either in prison or being mutilated or killed.

Today, there are thousands of civilian prisoners in Ukraine who are deprived of their liberty and human rights for “likes” under “incorrect” social-media posts, Internet discussions of projectile impact location, frank correspondence with relatives in Russia via messengers, performing professional duties (like teaching) in the territories occupied and then abandoned by Russia, and so on. The retreats of the Russian Armed Forces from the Kiev region, parts of the Kharkov region, and parts of the Kherson region in later 2022 were marked by mass arrests, which continue to this day. This is what the SSU calls “the stabilization measures.” Only in the summer of 2022, as a result of these “measures”—apartment-by-apartment sweeps—700 people were detained in Vinnytsa and Nikolaev—two regional centers in the southern part of Ukraine bordering the Odessa region.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR) sees all these violations, as is evident from its regular reports that discuss “the broad interpretation and application of terrorism-related provisions of the Criminal Code” in Ukraine. The UN OHCHR has to be cautious in its formulations not to lose its mandate in Ukraine, but beneath this politically correct framing of the issue a monstrous reality is hidden, and not so many people over the world (to put it mildly) recognize this.

Agents of the Kremlin or Prisoners of Conscience?

I and my colleagues have analyzed many open sources, including reports from the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine and regional prosecutor’s offices. Drawing on these open data, one can infer that from the beginning of 2022 to the beginning of 2024, the Ukrainian Prosecutor’s Office, the National Police and the SSU opened more than 74 thousand criminal cases that may concern civilians and may be politically motivated or related to the persecution of oppositional opinions and views. More than 16 thousand people have been informed of suspicion. More than 12 thousand cases have been brought to court with an indictment. In other words, dozens of thousands of people holding “incorrect” views, who are under politically motivated criminal prosecution, may currently be in pre-trial detention centers and prisons.

| Agents of the Kremlin or Prisoners of Conscience 1 | MR Online
| Agents of the Kremlin or Prisoners of Conscience 2 | MR Online

Article 110 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine–encroachment on the territorial integrity and inviolability of Ukraine–in its practical implications has been most often associated not with illegal actions but with “wrong” views. Judging from the data provided by the Office of the Prosecutor General of Ukraine and regional prosecutor’s offices, during the two years of the conflict, almost 11 thousand criminal productions were initiated. Among them:

  • More than three thousand cases on treason (Article 111);
  • More than seven thousand cases on suspicion of collaborationist activities (Article 111-1);
  • More than one thousand cases under the article on aiding the “aggressor State” (Article 111-2).
  • More than 600 criminal proceedings according to Articles 114-1 and Articles 114-2: the obstruction of the activities of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and other military formations and unauthorized dissemination of information about the direction of the movement of weapons and ammunition and the placement of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
  • 600 proceedings according to Article 436-1–creation, dissemination of communist and Nazi symbols and propaganda of communist and Nazi totalitarian regimes, which in fact has been applied only to communist symbols.
  • 2,636 criminal proceedings according to Article 436-2 (the article used to sentence Gonzalo Lira)–justification of the armed aggression of the Russian Federation and the glorification of its participants.

| Criminal | MR Online

These statistics do not reflect the numbers of missing persons, as well as persons subjected to enforced disappearances (abductions by the state), such as the journalist Nikolay Sidorenko from Kramatorsk, Donetsk region, who was tried in 2017 for participating in illegal armed formations of the DPR and LPR (Lugansk People’s Republic). Nikolay was released from prison being disabled–his spine was broken during tortures. On March 27, 2022 in Bakhmut, Donetsk region (under the control of Ukraine at that time) Nikolay was taken from home in a car with Kiev license plates by people in Ukrainian military uniforms. Since then, his relatives have not been able to obtain any news about him. The response to their numerous official requests was the same: Ukrainian authorities have nothing to do with the abduction.

| Nikolay | MR OnlineOn September 7, 2022, in the village of Ivanovka, Chuguevsky district, Kharkov region, officers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine kidnapped Sergey Chemolosov, who distributed Russian humanitarian aid and restored electricity supply in the village during the stay of Russian troops there. While in custody, Sergei was severely beaten and taken away to an unknown destination. Locals say: “to the basement” (this is how people call torture chambers) of the city of Balakleya. On September 9, Kirill Tymoshenko, the deputy head of the office of President Zelensky, published on Facebook a photo in which Sergey, with traces of beatings, is sitting blindfolded with hist hands tied. The signature on the photo made by Tymoshenko was as follows: “We are working together with the Armed Forces of Ukraine on the regional policy.” Chemolosov’s further fate is unknown.

These are only two cases, and nobody knows what is the exact number of “collaborators” and “traitors” with similar fates in Ukraine nowadays (some other similar cases are discussed by Olga Baysha in her recent book “War, Peace, and Populism in Ukraine”). If all these people are still alive, they may be held in a number of places not provided for by law: apartments, sanatoriums, basements of abandoned buildings and administrative premises of local SSU departments, and so on. OHCHR, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have been repeatedly expressing concerns about the existence of such illegal interrogation centers; they also regularly publish their whereabouts. However, their numerous reports neither led to any solution of the problem nor helped initiating any meaningful discussion worldwide. Ukrainian propagandistic media (and there are no other media in Ukraine nowadays) brand the workers of international monitoring missions and human rights organizations as the “agents of the Kremlin”; under this premise, what these organizations publish is considered “Russian propaganda” “not worthy of attention.”

Three Types of Political Prisoners

| Sergey | MR OnlinePersons persecuted for political reasons in Ukraine can be divided into three main categories:

  1. Detainees for personal views and beliefs. These are the people who publicly spoken out on various socio-political topics in a manner that is not approved by the Ukrainian regime: they were criticizing the normalization of right-wing radicalism, the discriminatory logic of Ukraine’s language policy, the prosecution of the Russian Orthodox Church, or simply providing comments to Russian media. Here are some examples:

Professor Sergey Shubin from Nikolayev was sentenced to 15 years in prison for making notes in his personal diary with reflections on what life would be like in the Nikolayev region if it were occupied by the Russian army.

A pensioner from Sumy region Lyudmila Vazhinskaya was sentenced for six months for propagating peaceful negotiations between Ukraine and Russia while talking with people in a queue for milk.

Kiev journalist Dmitry Skvortsov, who is now in jail and can get 15 years of imprisonment, is being accused of violating the 2020 decision of the National Security Council of Ukraine (NSCU) by criticizing in 2016 the policy of discriminating ethnic Russians and Orthodox believers.

Lvov opposition politician Inna Ivanochko may be sentenced to 15 years for propagating the federalization of Ukraine (which is equated to separatism in contemporary Ukraine) on Russian television in 2018.

  1. Detainees for an alleged assistance to the Russian army. In many cases, these are the people who have been accused for publishing (in social media) photos of projectile impact locations and guiding missiles. Importantly, most of the sentences for “missile gunners” have been handed down without evidence, under deals with investigation—as a result of self-incrimination in hope of a lighter sentence (with no confiscation of property, for example) or for a future prisoner exchange with Russia. Here are some examples:

| Sergey | MR OnlineThree teenagers from Bakhmut and Slavyansk (Donetsk region)–Volodya Markin, Nastya Glushchenko and Sasha Kulakov–were sentenced to 10 years in prison each for transmitting information to Russian special services about the deployment of the Ukrainian military presumably with the aim of coordinating attacks against them. This is despite that the addressees of the information were not verified and strikes were not recorded at the transmitted coordinates.

The number of similar cases are innumerous; here are some of them:

  • 22-year-old Angelina Dovbnya from the Kirovograd region was given a life sentence;
  • 82—year-old writer Yuriy Chernyshov from Zhytomyr—was sentenced for 15 years (considering his age, this is a life sentence);
  • Doctor Anatoliy Ilyin from Cherkasy—15 years;
  • Lawyer Daria Krygina from Kharkov—11 years;
  • Left-wing activist Yuriy Petrovsky from Zaporozhye—15 years
  1. Detainees for maintaining public life in the territories occupied by Russia. These are the people who distributed humanitarian aid or worked in public institutions in the areas occupied by the Russian army (Kiev, Chernigov, Sumi, Kharkov, and Kherson regions). After Russian troops left the territories, these people found themselves to be “traitors” and “collaborators” with all the ensuing consequences. Here are some examples:

| Inna | MR OnlineOlga Galanina, Deputy Chairman of the Berdyansk Administration for Humanitarian Affairs, may be sentenced to life in prison because she agreed to continue her work in Berdyansk, Zaporozhye region, under the Russian administration. SSU officers kidnapped her student son in Dnepropetrovsk, and held him in a place of detention not provided for by law, forcing his mother to come to the territory controlled by Ukraine, where she was arrested.

Anatoliy Miruta, an entrepreneur from the Kiev region, received 10 years for negotiating with the Russian military to take local residents to the hospital and distributing Russian humanitarian aid.

Residents of Kherson Viktor Kirillov and Viktor Kozodoy, who worked as drivers in the Russian police of Kherson, were given 12 years. They were charged with no specific accusations but the fact of working for the police under Russians.

Valentina Ropalo, a resident of Volchansk, Kharkov region, was given 5 years in prison for “collaboration with the enemy”—i.e., for working as the head of the housing and communal services department while the Russian army was in her city.

Gonzalo Lira’s Fate for Many

| Volodya | MR OnlineThe fate of these people in Ukrainian prisons is often even more terrible than the fate of Gonzalo Lira. A couple of months ago, I managed to talk with almost the only person who was in and out of a Ukrainian prison after February 2022. This is the honored teacher of Ukraine, Alla Dushkina from Kiev–she spent three months in jail for correspondence with an acquaintance from Russia, in which she expressed doubts about the correctness of Ukraine’s political course. Three months later, she was granted bail (at the beginning of the war there was such an option; now it is practically impossible), she paid the bail and managed to leave the country without waiting for the verdict. Here is an excerpt from her story:

“I was arrested with my son in Khmelnitskiy [a city in Western Ukraine],” she says.–Five cars surrounded us, and then they interrogated me for 72 hours, trying to get a confession. I didn’t sign anything, we were beaten, wrapped in a black and red flag [the flag of the OUN-UPA, a Ukrainian far-right organization that collaborated with the Nazis during World War II]. I had to confess that I made some marks [for Russian bombs and missiles] and that I had given shelter to Kadyrovites [Cheches who are fighting for Russia], whom I had never seen in my life. And they took fingerprints and forced me to pass a lie detector, and threatened to take me to the city square with an announcement that I was putting tags [was a missile gunner] so that the mothers of the murdered soldiers would beat me. Then they realized that I wouldn’t sign anything, put bags on my son and me and started leading us somewhere. They brought us to Kiev, my son was shoved into the basement in front of me, they demanded from him to say that I had killed people, pressed on my conscience, and threatened. I was taken to the SSU building on Askold Lane, then to the Lukyanovo pre-trial detention center. The jailer showed me videos on her phone every morning—as far as I can understand, she was instructed to do this—how in both men’s and women’s buildings people were beaten, dipped their heads in the toilet, bullied. They demanded a confession from me to avoid the fate of people on these videos.”

| Yuriy | MR OnlineThis testimony sounds like a horror movie, but this is the Ukrainian reality nowadays. Only occasionally, such stories are being made public. People are voiceless, they have nowhere to turn, nowhere to tell about their trouble, and they are also afraid—if not for themselves, then for relatives. Only a few decide to break silence. I have been communicating with such brave people—relatives of political prisoners—for at least six months. Among other things, they tell about those who—like Gonzalo Lira—die in places of detention. Just two examples: one is about a couple from the Donetsk region that was arrested last year on suspicion of cooperating with the Russian army. The wife is still in jail, and the husband is beaten to death. Another one is about the husband of an elderly woman from Bakhmut, Donetsk region, who was detained by the SSU for “justifying Russian aggression” (the article that was applied to Gonzalo Lira). He was also beaten to death, but in the colony, when Bakhmut was under Ukraine’s control.

The Ukrainian regime claims that there are no political prisoners in Ukraine, that all those detained are simply criminals violating martial law, and they cannot be considered as being persecuted on political grounds. However, three basic provisions for international law refute these claims:

  1. International conventions and the Constitution of Ukraine explicitly prohibit the persecution of people for their views and opinions, no matter how much they disagree with the views and opinions of those in power.
  2. The use of evidence obtained as a result of incitement by law enforcement agencies cannot be justified by the public interest, since in such a case the accused may be deprived of the right for a fair trial. This is stated in several decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, which Ukraine is obliged to comply with.
  3. The Fourth Geneva Convention prohibits bringing to justice people who provided for life in the occupied territories.

| Anatoliy | MR OnlineA huge problem in respecting the right for a fair trial lies in the fact that lawyers refuse to defend political prisoners due to pressure from the SSU and radicals who threaten their life, health and freedom. Some lawyers do not perform their duties due to political bias, and the situation is very similar to that with judges. Many of them are aware of the illegality of their sentences, but they are still passing them out of fear.

The exact number of cases similar to those discussed in this article is unknown, but even if we simply list all those cases that are known, it would fill volumes. The enormity of the problem is that all these cases, containing heartbreaking stories about ruined human lives, will remain unknown to global publics who still believe that Ukraine is a democracy fighting against totalitarianism—a fairy tale that mainstream media feed them. Should we wait until years pass—like with Pinochet—for people all over the world to learn the truth about the horrors happening in Ukrainian dungeons? Or should we—thinking of what happened to Gonzalo Lira— start talking about this loudly now, to save thousands of innocent lives ruined under the cover of false ignorance of the world’s rulers? This is the basic question I wanted to raise, and for me the answer is obvious: The global silence should be broken!

Pavel Volkov, Ukrainian and Russian journalist (Ukraina.ru, VZGLYAD, Russky Reporter, etc.).

From 2012 to 2017 he worked for various Ukrainian and Russian publications, covered the referendum in the DNR in 2014, and reported from the contact line in Donbass in 2015. In 2017 he was arrested in Ukraine on political grounds for journalistic activities, 13 months in the Zaporozhye pre-trial detention centre, in 2018 he was recognised as a prisoner of conscience by the Swiss human rights organisation Solidarity Network (Bern), in 2020 he was acquitted by all national instances. To date, he is the only acquitted political prisoner in Ukraine.

Since 2019—a member of the Independent Trade Union of Journalists of Ukraine, author of human rights reports and court reports for the human rights organisation “Uspishna Varta” (Kyiv) and the International Society for Human Rights (Frankfurt am Main), cooperated with the UN OHCHR on political repression and human rights violations in Ukraine.

In 2019—speaker at a conference in the Bundestag (Berlin) on human rights in Ukraine and the establishment of the Inter-Parliamentary Commission on Human Rights (IPMK); speaker at a conference in the European Parliament (Brussels) on the problems of the Russian language and Russian-language media in Ukraine and the Baltic States; participant in hearings in the European Parliament (Brussels) on the political persecution of journalist, founder of Wikileaks Julian Assange, author of a series of publications describing the criminal proceedings against Assange.

Was one of the organisers of the international collection of signatures for the release of political prisoners in Ukraine.  From 2019 to 2021.—Member of the Inter-Parliamentary Commission on Human Rights (IPMK) at the Bundestag. 2022—Official representative of the international human rights organisation Solidarity Network (Bern) in Ukraine, South Ukrainian section of Solidarity Network.

2023-2024.—Organiser and participant in conferences and public hearings in Russia, as well as at the UN and OSCE, on the mutual release of civilian prisoners in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

Postgraduate student at the National Research University Higher School of Economics (Moscow), working on a thesis on ultra-right-wing hate speech in the Ukrainian media.

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