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11 years of strict regime «for espionage»: how the occupiers punish those who disagree with the «SVO» in the occupied territories

1.5 years in Russian captivity and 11 years under a strict regime. How do Russians commit war crimes against civilians in the Kherson region?

Estimated Reading Time: 8 min

The next episode of the program «Free Our Relatives» features the story of Ivan Kozlov, a civilian from Kherson, held hostage by the Russians.

Ivan Kozlov, an IT specialist from Kherson, has been in captivity for over 1.5 years after being abducted by the Russians in Armyansk on the administrative border with the occupied Crimea. This incident occurred when Ivan and his family attempted to leave the occupied Kherson region. Ivan, a husband, and a father of two children, remains separated from his family.

We talked to his wife, Maria Kozlova.

How did the abduction take place?

Maria Kozlova: Everything happened very suddenly and abruptly; we couldn’t understand anything. At the administrative border with Crimea, both women and men underwent checks, with men facing more thorough scrutiny. The Russians had set up separate trailers for interrogating men, where FSB officers were already at work. This check took a considerable amount of time and occurred in April. On April 21, 2022, I saw my husband for the last time.

Ivan went into the interrogation trailer and was gone for three hours. By that time, we had already boarded the bus waiting for us. Later, my husband called and asked me to return for our belongings, as he had them with him, and assured me that they would explain everything. When I retrieved our things, men with assault rifles handed me the suitcases without providing any explanation and gestured the way with a guns.

At that moment, I had our 1-year and 2-month-old daughter in my arms, along with two suitcases. I had to decide whether to stay or go back. Consulting with people around me, we concluded that I needed to leave that tense situation and wait for Ivan to make contact. At that point, there was no communication with him, and I couldn’t determine the next steps from him. It was a challenging decision, but we left nonetheless.

Ivan Kozlov with his family/Photo from the family archive

When did you realize that Ivan would not be released?

Maria Kozlova: At first, there was no thought that Ivan would be detained for long. It seemed like they would hold him temporarily, conduct thorough checks, and then release him. It was only later that I discovered numerous instances of people from the Kherson region being abducted during the period of March, April, and May. Initially, we had no inkling and assumed they would detain him briefly, and he would catch up with us. He knew the planned route; we were headed to Georgia. However, I went to Georgia without him.

We encountered another situation when passing through Crimea. At a checkpoint, we and our children were taken for interrogation. We spent a day and a half there, with me being questioned while holding small children in my arms.

Read: «Either you send us 5000 euros, or we will send you the video of your son’s execution»: The story of a captured student from Mariupol

How did the interrogations go?

Maria Kozlova: They confiscated mine and my children’s documents, leaving us with no ability to move or assert our rights. Moreover, the individuals detaining us, who happened to be FSB officers, held a certain power over us. I was taken to different rooms with different interrogators, facing questioning from approximately ten different people within that twenty-four-hour period. The questions varied, touching on different aspects of my life. Sometimes they circled back to my husband, asking about his activities in Kherson, despite pretending not to know about his detention. It was an incredibly challenging and frightening experience, marked by threats to my life. When they realized that threats to my life didn’t sway me, they resorted to threatening to take my children away. They were keen to ascertain what my husband was involved in within Kherson.

I have information that during the interrogation, they discovered something on his phone, using it as the basis for their accusations, making up a «case» that led to his sentencing of 11 years – a verdict that already exists.

Since then, efforts to fight and clarify the circumstances have started.

Detained for opposition to the «SVO»

Maria Kozlova: A lot transpired during this time. Initially, no official information was available. Unconfirmed details hinted that he might be in the Simferopol detention center, as civilians from Kherson and the region were typically taken there.

Around five or six months later, after numerous requests from our lawyers to various Russian authorities, an answer arrived, stating that he was in SIZO No. 1 in Simferopol, detained for «opposing a special military operation». This marked the first official response, though our side considers it illegitimate.

Continuing our inquiries to various authorities, including the Russian Prosecutor’s Office and the Federal Penitentiary Service, in October 2022, we learned that Ivan Kozlov had been transferred to SIZO No. 2 in the same city of Simferopol. This facility was renovated during the occupation of Crimea specifically to detain Ukrainians and featured surveillance cameras in the cells, unlike regular cells.

Ivan Kozlov/Photo from the family archive

When did the trial start?

Maria Kozlova: I received a letter informing me that my husband had been charged under Article 276 of the Russian Criminal Code, which pertains to espionage. Subsequently, I was contacted by the Russian state-appointed lawyer. Concurrently, I engaged a private lawyer who visited Ivan, providing crucial information about my husband’s well-being. Unfortunately, this wasn’t about protecting human rights.

«A private lawyer was able to see Ivan for the first time….»

Maria Kozlova: The initial report on Ivan was disheartening – he was in a poor psychological and physical state. Having endured almost a year of complete information isolation, he was unaware of our whereabouts, our well-being, or even if we were alive. The occupiers falsely informed him that we too had been taken away and held somewhere. Consequently, his condition was dire – he was emaciated, with gray and sunken cheeks, appearing much older than his age.

Later, when Ivan appeared in the electronic database of detainees, the option of electronic correspondence via a special service called Zonatelecom became available.

Ivan Kozlov/Photo from open sources

«I have no information about what will happen next…»

Maria Kozlova: Three court hearings took place in December, and he has already received a sentence – 11 years in a strict regime colony. The accusation is based on the claim that he provided information to the Ukrainian side, specifically sharing coordinates of the location of Russian troops with the Ukrainian army. However, in reality, this assertion is a fabrication and wishful thinking. In Ivan’s case, there was no harm caused on the other side as a result of transmitting those coordinates. I am not aware of many details of his case because the information is classified and not disclosed.

After the verdict was announced, it became possible to send him parcels – once a month, up to 30 kg of food and other items can be sent. I send these parcels every month because the food provided there is of poor quality. He wrote to me that they were given rotten fish for a week. These parcels have become a lifeline, at least covering the need for food.

Ivan has the status of a civilian hostage, recognized as such by our state. Each hostage has an electronic account where all documents, photos, and videos about the person are uploaded. However, I have no information from the state about what will happen next.

It’s worth noting that the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, Dmytro Lubinets, at the fourth meeting of advisers in Davos, urged the international community to urgently unite efforts to bring home all Ukrainians illegally taken by the Russian occupiers.

The Ombudsman emphasized the need to bring back all Ukrainians who were taken as prisoners of war and illegally deported by Russia. Therefore, he stated that the international community «must immediately consolidate its efforts in this direction.»

«In Davos, our partners heard the voices of Ukrainian children whom we have brought home, relatives of civilians abducted and illegally detained by Russia. They were shocked by what they heard», — Lubinets said.

Additionally, it is important to note that the Russian Federation currently holds more than 25 Ukrainian journalists in captivity, as stated by Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, MP from the Voice party and chairman of the Committee on Freedom of Speech. These journalists, not combatants but professionals doing their job, should not be held captive according to civilized rules of warfare. However, Russia has shown disregard for human rights.

At the same time, more than 300 Russian soldiers have surrendered to Ukrainian captivity under the «I Want to Live» program, according to Vitaliy Matvienko, a spokesperson for the «I Want to Live» and «I Want to Find» projects. Since the launch of the project, aimed at Russian soldiers refusing to carry out criminal orders, more than 30,000 calls to hotlines and chatbots have been received, resulting in over 300 successful surrender operations.

In times of war, the program «Free our relatives» tells the stories of people, cities, villages, and entire regions that have been captured by Russian invaders. We discuss the war crimes committed by the Kremlin and its troops against the Ukrainian people.

The program is hosted by Igor Kotelianets and Anastasia Bagalika.

The coverage of war crimes resulting from Russia’s war against Ukraine is made possible by the support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the framework of the Human Rights in Action Program implemented by Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union.

Opinions, conclusions and recommendations presented in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government. The contents are the responsibility of the authors.


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