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20 years in prison for speaking Ukrainian on social media: the story of a kidnapped volunteer from Melitopol

A friend of Marharyta Kharenko, the abducted volunteer from Melitopol, shares details about her situation. What is currently known about Marharyta, how the abduction occurred, and what events led up to it?

20 years in prison for speaking Ukrainian on social media: the story of a kidnapped volunteer from Melitopol
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Marharyta Kharenko, a volunteer from Melitopol, was abducted by Russians from her home in 2023. On April 4, 2024, she was illegally sentenced to 20 years in a case fabricated by the occupiers.

What is currently known about Marharyta Kharenko

Yelyzaveta: After Marharyta’s fake sentence was handed down in April this year, there has been no further information about her. We keep in touch with her contact person, but there are no updates yet. It remains a big question what is happening to her now. The latest news is that Marharyta was in Rostov-on-Don.

How Marharyta was abducted

Yelyzaveta: In 2022, when the city of Melitopol was occupied, Marharyta worked as a pharmacist in a local pharmacy. At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, there was chaos. It was unclear what was happening, and there was a great demand for medicines. We started volunteering with her, helping locals who needed medicines, searching for these medicines, and trying to bring them from government-controlled territory or find them in pharmacies. Marharyta’s profession came in handy.

In addition, Marharyta continued to maintain her social media in Ukrainian. She had a friend who was at the front, but unfortunately, he died in 2022. She spoke about it openly on social media. She was not planning to leave the city, as far as I knew, because she had elderly parents who never left their home.

However, Marharyta gave up her volunteer activities because it was dangerous to volunteer during the occupation. Later, she went to work as an administrator in one of the local gyms.

Marharyta Kharenko / Photo: ZMINA

Marharyta was abducted on 9 January 2023. Before her abduction, she led a quiet, peaceful life so as not to put herself in danger. She helped online as much as she could, but she did not physically show herself in the city, as this is one of the conditions for keeping herself alive.

On 9 January, according to some sources, the military, according to others, the FSB came and abducted her from her home, accusing her of terrorism. At that time, the Ukrainian underground was working well in Melitopol, dealing with collaborators and the Russian military in their own way. Marharyta continued to post on social media in Ukrainian, but it is important to note that this was not a big activity; what she posted were everyday topics about books she had read or her health. According to various friends, this was one of the possible reasons why the Russian military came to her.

Marharyta also went to a Baptist church. The occupation forces consider such people to be a threat to society. Accordingly, in January 2023, she was abducted from her home and placed in a detention centre in Melitopol. Her personal belongings, phone, and laptop were taken.

Read also: A year and a half of ignorance: how the Russians kidnapped a grain businessman

«At first, they said that Marharyta was the head of the partisan movement»

Yelyzaveta: I think there were people who made sure that people came to see Marharyta. The underground was active at that time. There were 40 explosions, railway bombings, and car bombings of collaborators. At first, they said that Marharyta was the leader of the partisan movement. And that she organised these 40 bombings that took place in the city. Then there was other information that she was the instigator of the terrorist attack. By the way, at one of the hearings, they tried to convict her under Article 205 of the Russian Criminal Code for committing a terrorist act. However, in April 2024, she was convicted of an attempted murder of a Russian serviceman, accused of espionage and involvement in the C14 organisation. Marharyta had no connection with this organisation.

When I learned about my friend’s abduction, I started looking for connections to support her while I was in the government-controlled territory. I contacted the Centre for Civil Liberties. They have an active Google form for those who have relatives or friends in captivity of the Russian occupiers. We then contacted the representative, and I forwarded this form to a person who was directly involved in Marharyta’s case in the temporarily occupied territory. We tried to give this case publicity so that it would not be hushed up and we could negotiate and get Marharyta out of captivity.

We also appealed to the Red Cross, the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Ministry of Reintegration regarding civilian hostages. In fact, there is no resonance of this case now, because there are many civilians in illegal detention, and all applications are processed on a first-come, first-served basis.

While Marharyta was in Yakymivka in Zaporizhzhia Region, then in Simferopol, and later returned to Azov, her parents tried to contact her throughout these events. They managed to secure one or two visits where they could speak with Ryta. Each time, her parents sent her items and food, but unfortunately, there is no reliable information that these packages reached her.

As for the lawyer, there is no information on how to contact Ryta now, after she was sentenced to a fake sentence. We are waiting for more information to understand our next steps.

Ryta has lost a lot of weight and has heart problems. We cannot assess her current condition, but it is likely deteriorating given the reported treatment of prisoners by the Russians, both civilian and military.

There were distressing rumors in the city that she was not alive when her whereabouts and condition were unknown. However, we were relieved to see a photo of her from the courtroom during the last events in April.

Her parents, especially her mother, also have heart problems, which exacerbates their perception of the situation. Besides her parents, a close friend is involved in this case, assisting the Coordination Centre with filling out questionnaires and providing information.

Read also: Lack of medicine threatens people with death: what happens to illegally detained civilians in Crimea

How Russian intimidation strategies work

Yelyzaveta: Marharyta and I kept in touch after I left.

It’s important to note that when you’re in the government-controlled territory of Ukraine, you must be mindful of cybersecurity and avoid discussing sensitive topics in your correspondence or calls that could endanger people in the temporarily occupied territory.

Therefore, we didn’t talk about any critical issues happening in the city to avoid putting her in danger. Our local news channels have been reporting on the abduction of other civilians.

Based on the information I have, only Marharyta is involved in her case. I can’t say that anyone else has been implicated. However, it’s crucial to understand that when people resist, the occupation authorities begin to intimidate them. They have intimidated almost everyone involved in charity work.

For example, one man in the city was distributing bread to the elderly at the beginning of the occupation. The Russians came and took him to a basement, and his fate is still unknown.

Marharyta is a very non-confrontational person. She is kind, generous in her communication, and would never offend anyone. She would give the last thing she has to another person; she is always ready to share and support. These false charges and the sentences they want to impose on her don’t make sense to me because she is not that kind of person. Violence is a big taboo for her, and she would never commit it. She never spoke of any conflicts, and I would be very surprised if she had any because she is always polite, willing to compromise, and tries to find solutions.

As part of their intimidation strategy, the Russians often try to find someone similar among the abducted person’s acquaintances to attribute the case to them as well, thereby intimidating a larger group of people.

Marharyta was kidnapped in January 2023. In March, I received a message from her via messenger. Initially, I didn’t understand what it meant or if she had been released. I immediately started checking to see if she was still in detention and realized that this was a Russian tactic. They wrote in Ukrainian, mimicking the tone in which Marharyta and I communicated. If I had replied, who knows what kind of information they would have sought next.

Read also: In one year, my father aged ten years — the story of Oleksandr Zhukov, kidnapped by the Russians

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 Ihor Kotelyanets and Anastasia Bagalika.

This publication is made possible by the generous 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.

USAID is the world’s premier international development agency and a catalytic actor driving development results. USAID’s work demonstrates American generosity, and promotes a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience, and advances U.S. national security and economic prosperity. USAID has partnered with Ukraine since 1992, providing more than $9 billion in assistance. USAID’s current strategic priorities include strengthening democracy and good governance, promoting economic development and energy security, improving health care systems, and mitigating the effects of the conflict in the east.

For additional information about USAID in Ukraine, please call USAID’s Development Outreach and Communications Office at: +38 (044) 521-5753. You may also visit our website: http://www.usaid.gov/ukraine or our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/USAIDUkraine.


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