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

Olha Skrypnyk, Head of the Board of the Crimean Human Rights Group, human rights activist and Crimean resident described Crimea as a large prison for illegally imprisoned civilians.

Lack of medicine threatens people with death: what happens to illegally detained civilians in Crimea
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«Detainees are literally forced to testify against other people»

Olha Skrypnyk: Unfortunately, the situation with illegally imprisoned civilians in Crimea is not improving; it continues to deteriorate. We are recording new detentions and additional transfers to Rostov.

Now in Rostov, Russia, many hearings have begun in cases of our citizens who were detained in 2022-2023. This concerns both people from occupied Crimea and those who were abducted in Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions.

Usually, the charges are espionage and terrorist articles, and therefore, these cases are considered by Russian military courts.

That’s why the detainees are taken there. The number of people held in pre-trial detention centers is not decreasing. Moreover, we see that the trend of detaining people continues.

The most common accusations are that a person is cooperating with the Armed Forces, the Security Service of Ukraine, or the DIU. Hundreds of cases are fabricated on this basis, some of which are very difficult to challenge. Currently, Russia does not disclose the names of detainees, doing everything possible to prevent their relatives from learning anything about their loved ones, even with the help of lawyers. They are held for several months without any possibility of informing them of their whereabouts or what is happening to them.

Another issue is the intensified underground movement in Crimea since 2022. These movements range from the Yellow Ribbon to various movements supporting the Armed Forces, leading to frequent large-scale detentions. This period becomes an opportunity for occupiers to intimidate individuals or gather information about their friends and relatives, who are often automatically enrolled in so-called terrorist groups. Subsequently, they are judged not for individual actions but as a whole group.

Looking at the cases considered in Rostov, one example is the case of athlete Kyrylo Baranyk, alongside several other men. Cases are now being fabricated in groups to demonstrate the alleged presence of terrorist groups.

Therefore, the initial months of detention are crucial for the FSB, during which individuals are vulnerable, tortured, beaten, and isolated, to extract testimony against others.

Often, they detain friends or neighbors, alleging association to fabricate cases quickly. These cases are largely built on coerced testimonies. One case involves explosives allegedly planted in a neighboring FSB building. Several individuals residing nearby were detained, forming the basis for the entire case.

Currently, the list of illegally imprisoned people includes over 200 from Crimea, detained for political reasons, predominantly Crimean Tatars. Most of them are accused of alleged membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir. Ukrainians from the newly occupied territories are mostly brought to Crimea. However, if there are Crimean Tatars among them abducted in Kherson or Zaporizhzhia regions, they are typically accused of participating in the Noman Chelebidzhikhan battalion.

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

Why Crimean detention centers are constantly overcrowded

Olha Skrypnyk: In Crimea, detention centers are overcrowded, which is exploited to hinder visits by lawyers, among other things. Artificial queues are created, where a lawyer may physically see a person, but officials claim all offices are occupied, advising them to return in a week. These constant obstacles impede the work of lawyers, facilitating the continued suppression of individuals.

A considerable number of people in the pre-trial detention center remain incommunicado, including Oleksandr Babych, the mayor of Hola Prystan. While we know he is there, Russia has yet to officially confirm his detention.

For the most part, individuals in Crimea are held only during the investigation phase, typically accused of sabotage or terrorism, leading their cases to be heard by Russian military courts. Once the investigation, which usually takes six months to a year, is completed, detainees are transferred to Rostov. However, their places are promptly filled as new detentions occur.

Regarding the newly occupied territories, there is a trend of filtering where people attempt to leave these regions, often through Crimea, aiming to reach Ukrainian territory. Many flee due to shelling, food shortages, and inadequate medical services. At Crimean checkpoints, FSB officers frequently detain individuals for several months, subjecting them to interrogation without access to legal representation or communication with relatives. Detainees lack formal status and are held until deemed irrelevant. Some individuals detained in 2023 were released the same year without any criminal charges, as the occupiers found nothing incriminating.

In 2023, the Russians established another detention center, SIZO No. 8, and also utilize the colony in Simferopol for this purpose, continuing construction on some buildings. Temporary detention centers, such as the one in Dzhankoy or other northern territories of Crimea, are utilized, particularly for detentions at checkpoints.

Regarding Sevastopol, since 2022, it has served as a detention center for prisoners of war or civilians deemed as such by Russia. This area is entirely closed off, preventing access to information, and operates as a military facility.

Moreover, there are so-called «FSB vacation houses», where detainees are deliberately taken for torture. These facilities host individuals for extended periods, subjected to severe torture. This practice began in 2016-2017 with the first cases of alleged saboteurs and spies. The FSB possesses absolute power, with unrestricted access to premises and resources.

Read also: Occupiers confirmed his innocence, but used him as a slave — stories of missing Balakliya residents

How families from the unoccupied territories of Ukraine can fight for the release of their loved ones

Olha Skrypnyk: Regarding Russia’s stance, the FSB often coerces individuals into acknowledging themselves as combatants, typically through torture or by promising detainees exchange opportunities if they confess to various charges, such as espionage, terrorism, and attempted assaults on occupation figures. They are assured that by admitting guilt, they will secure a spot on exchange lists. However, recent exchanges have notably excluded individuals from Crimea, rendering this promise false and coercive. Regrettably, admitting to charges does not guarantee release, despite some lawyers advising such action. In practice, there’s scant evidence to suggest its efficacy, especially considering that many individuals aren’t formally recognized by Russia.

What recourse do relatives of these individuals have? It’s imperative that our law enforcement system initiates investigations. To begin this process, one must report a disappearance, abduction, or detention to the police or contact the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). While both are distinct entities, involving both can be beneficial, with the SBU often possessing more resources. Thus, contacting law enforcement agencies to launch a case is advisable. Typically, relatives are recognized as victims in these cases, receiving documentation confirming their status and dispelling doubts about a simple disappearance. Additionally, contacting the Ministry of Reintegration is recommended.

Families often reach out to the FSB and the military prosecutor’s office, sometimes with cases resulting in confirmations. However, more frequently, responses looks as if the individual is detained without a direct threat to their life, being investigated due to potential threats to the occupational authorities’ operations. Although this is a standard response, it tacitly acknowledges the person’s detention.

While we don’t recognize occupiers’ documents, seeking information from them is still advised. Relatives are encouraged to approach occupation authorities to gather any available information.

Support networks exist among relatives, both virtually, through chats, and in the form of organized groups. For instance, many relatives have banded together to campaign for the return of individuals associated with Azovstal.

Family reunification serves not only as psychological support but also as an opportunity to locate witnesses who can corroborate and assist in gathering information.

Read also: Crimean Tatar political prisoners: who are they, how many are there now and where are they being held

«There are already several dozen people with critical health conditions on our lists»

Olha Skrypnyk: Parcels have perennially posed challenges. Initially, when a person is detained, Russians refuse all parcels. If an individual is incommunicado, transfers are intentionally rejected, as accepting them would automatically confirm their custody.

Within pre-trial detention centers or colonies, there exist so-called «shops» where relatives often send money for detainees to purchase items. However, prices there are deliberately inflated, rendering it nearly impossible to buy anything meaningful with 5 thousand rubles.

Individuals are frequently taken away at night, sometimes clad only in pajamas or underwear. Even in such cases, they’re denied basic items like a T-shirt, instead relying on clothing from other prisoners.

The most pressing issue is access to medications. Transporting them in compliance with detention center or colony regulations is challenging, and even with proper documentation, medicines often fail to reach the detainees. This is critical, particularly because many are held unlawfully under Russian jurisdiction, jeopardizing not just their health but also their lives.

Several dozen individuals on our lists suffer from critical health conditions, and we’ve tragically witnessed the deaths of some political prisoners due to this neglect.

Upon arrival at colonies, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars are promptly placed in punishment isolation cells, depriving them of parcels, correspondence, and other forms of communication. This practice amounts to a form of psychological and physical degradation. For instance, Valentyn Vyhivskyi has endured years in such isolation, leading to severe disconnection from the world around him.

Another distressing issue is transfer, which can last for months with no information about the detainee’s whereabouts. The route of the transfer is classified, and throughout, individuals endure constant beatings and humiliation. Starvation is a common tactic, with illegally detained individuals often denied food and even water until reaching a detention center.

Illegally imprisoned civilians are witnesses to Russia’s crimes

Olha Skrypnyk: In early December, there were 120 people in SIZO No. 2. Among them, about 60-70 were confirmed detainees, slightly more than half. Currently, more than half, around 60-70%, have formal status, meaning they have criminal cases against them. However, nearly a third of the detainees remain incommunicado.

Formally, these individuals do not exist, as Russia does not respond to any inquiries about them. Consequently, they are deprived of even the limited means to defend themselves or report their whereabouts. This is a dire situation, especially given that some of these individuals have been taken away. Questions linger: Where were they taken? Did they arrive? Are they still alive?

Moreover, as the prospect of the Ukrainian army entering Crimea nears, Russia is likely to expedite the removal of all prisoners. For Russia, these detainees are witnesses to its crimes. According to International Humanitarian Law, there should be no civilian prisoners, making the presence of these detainees even more incriminating for Russia.

Read also: What is happening to the political prisoners held by Russia — the story of Nariman Dzhelyal

Who is still at risk of imprisonment in Crimea

Olha Skrypnyk: No one can guarantee security in the occupied territory because, unfortunately, it is controlled by an enemy that holds no regard for human life.

The occupiers monitor social media extensively. There are already more than 700 administrative cases for various expressions deemed offensive. These offenses can be anything, not just statements against Russia or Putin, but also innocuous acts like displaying a yellow and blue ribbon or a photo with a Ukrainian flag. These administrative cases can escalate into criminal charges.

In addition to the FSB and the Russian police, there are special groups. In Crimea, one such group is the SMERSH community, controlled by Talipov, a pro-Russian traitor who had been collaborating with the FSB even before Crimea’s occupation. This online community consists of individuals eager to persecute anyone supporting Ukraine or opposing Putin. They identify these people and report them to the FSB.

Telegram is definitely monitored by the FSB. Numerous examples show that Telegram communications are easily accessed and hacked by the FSB.

The FSB also creates special communities, chats, and channels to attract people, then injects provocative statements. For example, after an incident in Mariupol, they observe how people react. When individuals write things like «When will this war be over already» or «I wish this Russia would collapse,» these responses are recorded. This leads to cases being opened for offenses ranging from discrediting the Russian army to incitement to terrorism and extremism, resulting in criminal charges.

Telegram is particularly vulnerable, making it the most insecure and dangerous platform for users. We urge people not to use it, or at least to be aware of the risks involved.

Additionally, mobile communications in Crimea are fully controlled, so it is unsafe to discuss anything sensitive over the phone.

People must understand that Russia monitors social media vigilantly. They fear protests because they know they occupy a territory that does not support them.

Furthermore, Russia tries to track everyone involved with websites in the occupied territories before the occupation. This includes not only prominent journalists and bloggers but also administrators of any websites or social media groups. These individuals are always targeted. If they have the opportunity to leave, they should do so, as it may become too dangerous later.

Read also: Mykola Medyk’s health has not improved — the story of a 69-year-old man illegally detained 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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