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Accusations of «terrorism» and a plot for propaganda TV: Russians kidnap a Melitopol civilian

His wife, Lucienne Zinovkina, speaks about the fate of Kostyantyn Zinovkin, a kidnapped civilian from Melitopol who is accused of terrorism on a well-known propaganda TV channel.

Accusations of «terrorism» and a plot for propaganda TV: Russians kidnap a Melitopol civilian
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Kostyantyn Zinovkin is a resident of Melitopol, a civilian illegally imprisoned by the Russians. On May 12, 2023, he left home and never returned. Six months later, he was shown in a story on one of the propaganda TV channels.

What we know about Kostyantyn Zinovkin today

Lucienne Zinovkina: Kostyantyn was detained on May 12, 2023. He left home and did not return. Instead, men in balaclavas with their faces covered came to the house. They told my husband’s mother that he was detained for violating the regime. They said they would investigate and release him.

He was detained on a Friday. On Monday, my mother started visiting all the authorities, the occupation authorities: the police, the Russian Guard, and the commandant’s office. Everywhere she went, they denied any knowledge, stating that civilians are not detained.

For about three weeks, we knew nothing about Kostyantyn. Then, investigators came to our house. They didn’t introduce themselves, didn’t show their IDs, and only called themselves investigators. They told my mother that Kostyantyn had been detained by the FSB because he allegedly wanted to blow up a person. He was being held at the Priazovsky police station, not far from Melitopol.

My mother went there. Several times she even managed to send food and clothes for Kostyantyn. At the end of June, when my mother visited for the third time, she was told not to come anymore because Kostyantyn was being transferred to Chongar.

After that, I started writing appeals to the Russian side to establish Kostyantyn’s exact whereabouts. I sent a request to the General Prosecutor’s Office of Russia, and it was forwarded to the Melitopol Prosecutor’s Office. I received a reply from them stating that Kostyantyn was being held in the Chongar detention center in Kherson Region. My mother started going there once a month to bring him parcels. This continued until the end of January 2024.

Kostyantyn was brought to Melitopol every three months to extend his detention. In January, he was also brought to court, after which he disappeared. He was not returned to Chongar, and we did not know where he was sent.

I wrote to every possible authority. However, I received cynical responses, claiming that Kostyantyn was still in Chongar. Two months later, we received a letter from Kostyantyn saying that he was in Mariupol. He warned us not to bring parcels to Chongar because he was no longer there.

Now, the only source of information is Kostyantyn’s letters. He wrote that all detainees from Chongar would be transported to Mariupol, and then, most likely, to Rostov for court proceedings, where they would pass a sentence.

Read also: Closure of churches and raids on priests: What happens to religious organisations in the occupied territories

What is known about the charges and whether a lawyer is providing assistance

Lucienne Zinovkina: All I have are the answers from the prosecutor’s office, which contain the articles under which the investigation is currently underway: Article 205, part 2, and Article 30, part 3. These pertain to terrorism and preparation for a crime. An investigator who came to us back in 2023 said that Kostya had allegedly confessed to wanting to blow up a person.

There is nothing from Kostya in his letters. Perhaps he is afraid of censorship and that the letters will simply not come. That’s why he writes as distantly as possible, on more neutral topics.

Kostya has a court-appointed lawyer who communicates with me sometimes. However, when I ask questions or request documents about his detention or the extension of his detention, he replies that «it is not allowed.»

There is no talk of a defense strategy at all. The only thing the lawyer has done is arrange several visits for Kostyantyn to meet his mother in Melitopol. As for everything else, he often does not respond. If I ask two questions in one message, he either answers the more convenient one or leaves the message unread. In other words, the lawyer performs only a formal function.

Kostyantyn and Lucienne Zinovkin / Photo: Lucien Zinovkin’s Facebook

In what condition is Kostyantyn Zinovkin now

Lucienne Zinovkina: Mother saw Kostya in October last year, just after he was interviewed for a story that was broadcast on a Russian propaganda channel. He was holding up better than his mum then. Apparently, he was very worried about her.

Now, she saw him a month ago. He had been held in Mariupol for several months. Mother did not notice any injuries, but Kostya had lost a lot of weight.

Despite everything, he keeps saying that everything is fine. He writes in his letters that they feed him more or less well and give him hot water to make tea. It seems that he writes these letters for us. He does everything he can to keep us from worrying. I understand that half of it is just pretend. He writes that he is in a cell with very intelligent people. They play chess and read books, but he doesn’t mention any names. He writes only about his case. In his last letter, he wrote that he started taking walks.

Read also: With a bag over my head, I heard the sound of a gun: a journalist’s story after 15 days of Russian captivity

Kostyantyn in a story on Rossiya-1 TV channel

Lucienne Zinovkina: Currently, Kostyantyn’s status is «captured.» This was confirmed by a video broadcast on Russian television in October 2023. It was the first and only proof of Kostyantyn’s whereabouts.

At the end of the week, the Rossiya-1 TV channel with Kiselyov aired a 15-minute story about Melitopol and the resistance movement, focusing on alleged terrorists. Kostyantyn was featured in this story. He was described as unhealthy, a zombie, brainwashed by Ukraine because he claimed that Russia attacked Ukraine in 2013.

The host ridiculed Kostyantyn, asking why he spoke Russian if he was such a patriot. In response, Kostyantyn switched to Ukrainian. However, everything in the story was taken out of context, edited, and presented in the most negative light for Kostyantyn. Despite this, I was still proud of him. I tried to understand where he gets his courage and strength. I have a lot of respect for my husband.

«The occupiers seemed to be following a plan to detain as many civilians as possible»

Lucienne Zinovkina: At the time of the full-scale invasion, Kostya and I were in different cities. I was in Kyiv, and he was in Melitopol. Since Melitopol was occupied very quickly, we decided that I shouldn’t go back because it was unclear what would happen next. We decided that I would go to Germany. Kostya flatly refused to leave. He said, «If we are separate, one of us will have a better chance of survival.»

Kostya and I used to work abroad in China as dancers, earning money for his dream. He is an engineer by training and really wanted to have his own metalworking workshop. He lived for it.

Kostantyn was constantly in his workshop in Melitopol. He arranged it, made repairs, and bought all the machines. Even with the beginning of the occupation, he went to the workshop almost every day and did something to keep his hands and head busy. It was his place of strength.

A few months after Kostya’s detention, we found out that the workshop was gone. It was taken away. They took everything that was possible. I am glad that Kostya does not know this.

I don’t know why he was detained more than a year after the occupation began. Maybe it was his turn. Back then, there was constant talk of a counter-offensive, and the atmosphere was very tense. The Russians detained many people.

On the day Kostyantyn was detained, they detained several other people. One of them was released later, but the other disappeared, just like Kostya. It seems as if they were fulfilling a plan to detain as many civilians who think differently as possible. And so it was Kostyantyn’s turn.

«We need to fight for the entire category of civilians»

Lucienne Zinovkina: It is necessary to fight not specifically for the release of Kostyantyn, but for the entire category of illegally imprisoned civilians. Until May 2023, I did not realize how catastrophic the situation with civilians was. Obviously, if I fight only for Kostya, it will not bring any results. We need to highlight the issue of civilians, including in the Ukrainian information space.

We also need to raise awareness abroad. For example, I spoke at a PACE meeting in Strasbourg. Parliamentarians came up to me after my speech and said, «You’re doing a great job fighting, but we don’t know what to do.» Some said they did not know about the problem. They had heard statistics, but our story at least includes human feelings.

A mechanism for the return of civilians will not appear by itself. But if we turn to the European community, there will be interested people who have the power and strength to develop this mechanism and start applying it.

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

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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