«I participated in a pro-Ukrainian protest against Russian occupation». Afanasiev tells his story of what happened to him after that in 2014
Hennadii Afanasiev tells Oksana Smerechuk how he was detained in Crimea in 2014 then and imprisoned in Russia. And what he’s doing now
Hello and welcome to Ukraine Calling, your weekly review of what’s been happening in Ukraine with a focus on a main issue. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv, and here’s a look at some of the stories that were in the news this week.
FOCUS INTERVIEW: Hennadii Afanasiev tells Oksana Smerechuk how he was detained in Crimea in 2014 then and imprisoned in Russia. And what he’s doing now.
CULTURE and MUSIC
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FOCUS INTERVIEW: Hennadii Afanasiev tells Oksana Smerechuk how he was detained in Crimea in 2014 then and imprisoned in Russia. And what he’s doing now. Here’s our feature interview with HennadiyAfanasiev. Warning. The interview contains an account of being tortured, some listeners may find parts of what follows disturbing.
Smerechuk: This week the attention has been on Crimea and Crimean issues as people remember the events three years ago in 2014 when Russian Special Forces seized control of the Crimean Parliament and other administrative buildings in Crimea. Today in this studio is someone whose life took an unexpected turn due to the annexation of Crimea. HennadiyAfanasiev was a law school graduate working as a photographer when he was detained by police in what by then was Russian ruled Crimea. And imprisoned. He managed to survive two years of being tortured in Russian prisons. Since his release in a prisoner exchange he has been involved as a community activist, and working as an advisor at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs [of Ukraine] to help other Ukrainian political prisoners. Welcome to the studio, Hennadiy!
Afanasiev: Thank you.
Smerechuk: How did it happen that you were detained by the police on May 9th, 2014, a few months after the annexation of Crimea? Had you been working as an activist before?
Afanasiev: I was born in Simferopol in 1990, just before Ukraine gained its independence. I have a university degree in Law. I was also working as a professional photographer. During Russia’s occupation of Crimea I was helping Ukrainian soldiers who were in Crimea. I took part in protest actions against the occupation of the peninsula. At first, I had not accepted the Maidan [the Euromaidan protests of 2013-2014] because of Russian propaganda in the peninsula. Later I understood what was happening, and became a supporter of the Maidan. On May 9th 2014 I took a part in Victory Day commemoration in Simferopol. I was walking in the group, holding a photograph of my great-grandfather. He is the pride of our family. He participated in WWII. Suddenly, men civilian clothes with automatic guns kept stuck me in the back. Later it turned out they were FSB officers. [FSB is Russian Secret Service] They pushed me into a car, where they threw me onto the floor, and put a bag on my head. While driving, they were punching me in the stomach, and inquired about the names of participants of a pro-Ukrainian protest. They threatened me, saying that they would take me to the forest, and I would dig my own grave there. Finally, they dropped me at my house. They already knew where I lived. They took out the keys to my apartment and guided me inside with a bag on my head. Then they threw me on the floor. They did a search, but did not find anything. Then they took me to FSB office and put me in a cold basement where I spent ten days. All this time they did not let me sleep, eat, or drink water.
Smerechuk: So that was when you were first detained?
Smerechuk: Then what happened?
Afanaisiev: On the first day they only beat me. I was chained to an iron chair. I did not have a lawyer. I was surrounded by investigators from Moscow and FSB officers. They tried to threaten me. When they understood that I did not have any interesting information, they demanded that I self-incriminate myself. I must have admitted that on May 9th I tried to explode the war memorial. The absurdity of these demands was that they detained me in front of people, as I was walking with other people in the procession, without any explosives or guns. During the first five days FSB officers tried to get me to talk. They beat me in the head, wearing gloves to avoid bruises. They put a plastic bag on my head, suffocating me, and beat me again and again. But I kept silent. But it turned out to be a good attitude. Then the real tortures began.
Smerechuk: This is still in Crimea.
Afanasiev: Yes, in Crimea. I have to tell you what I had to overcome again and again, because people have to know what happens to someone who is under unlawful imprisonment in Russia. I am not the only one. They put a gasmask on my head with a lot of holes. Then they unscrewed the mask and sprayed some gas inside. I started to throw up and choke with my own vomit. When I was losing consciousness they took the mask off and gave me some ammonia to smell, and then repeated the whole process. Because of the cruel tortures, I pleaded guilty. Then they became interested in Oleksandr Kolchenko and Oleg Sentsov, other political prisoners. I refused. Then they put electric wires to my genitals. That was the way how they prepared documents. In the end they demanded from a plea agreement. They took off my clothes, pressed me down, and started passing an iron nail over my body telling me what would happen with my body when the iron tools will be under me [touch me]. They said the same would be done to my mother, and that got the desired effect. [HA agreed to give testimony against two other activists detained and charged in Crimea.] During the trial of Oleksandr Kolchenko and Oleg Sentsov [the other Crimean activists] I refuted my previous testimony in front of many witnesses. And told everyone about the torture, and the ways they made me testify against innocent people.
Smerechuk: So what were you charged with? What were you doing wrong when you were arrested? What was the grounds of this arrest?
Afanasiev: I participated in a pro-Ukrainian protest against Russian occupation.
Smerechuk: How long did you spend in prison in total?
Afanasiev: In total I spent 767 days there. It is more than 2 years.
Smerechuk: Were you held in Crimea? Were you imprisoned in Crimea?
Afanasiev: Only for the first 10-20 days I was held in Crimea. Then they took me to Moscow, to the FSB prison, which is called ‘Lefortovo’. The worst thing was that all people who tortured me work at that place. And I saw them every day, during the 1 year and 6 months I spent there. When I rescinded my public testimony, they transferred me to the Republic of Komi [in Russia]. It is a modern GULAG, it is near Vorkuta. The transfer was really hard, the temperature reached minus 40-45 degrees.
Smerechuk: Was it a special prison train?
Afanasiev: Yes, it is a special prison train. The railroad cars were so hot that they should have been cooled down by firefighter vehicles. There was neither water, nor toilet inside those railroad cars. Then in the Republic of Komi I caught several illnesses. My body was covered with wounds. But when they finally gave me some pills, those pills caused inflammation of my digestive organs.
Smerechuk: So, you are saying there were wounds on your body that did not heal?
Afanasiev: Yes, they did not heal, so I had to take a knife and cut myself, cut those wounds. That was horrible. And after that they took me to women’s colony. It is closer to Vorkuta and I was there for 3 months in solitary confinement. I have not eaten at all, because they said that I am a Russian citizen and I am fighting for my nationality, for my Ukrainian citizenship, so I have not eaten. [HA went on a hunger strike] And my health became very bad. There was inflammation of digestive organs, wounds etc. Putin was scared that I was probably going to die over there and they released me just before the moment when sanctions had to be prolonged.
Smerechuk: So, that was a strategic move. Were you allowed to receive letters, as a prisoner? Did you receive those letters?
Afanasiev: For the first year and six months I did not get any letters. I did not know that somebody knows about me and that I have support from people and my country. And everybody around me said that I was alone and nobody would help me.
Smerechuk: That is intimidation. So, when did you realize that people were advocating on your behalf, that Ukrainian government was working to get you released?
Afanasiev: First I got real advocacy when I rescinded of my previous witness statement and normal work started with me. And my defender [lawyer] started fighting for me. But it was really hard to the end to realize that somebody in Ukraine, politicians and people, supported me. It was really hard for a simple man. Until the end I did not realize how great was the support that I got.
Smerechuk: So, you were actually released on June 14th, 2016 together with YuriySoloshenko in exchange to two Ukrainian citizens who have been charged with separatism. From that day you said you wanted to work to help free our Ukrainian political prisoners. What have you been working on since you were released to Ukraine?
Afanasiev: For the first 9 months after my release I worked as a volunteer in different NGOs. I tried to create my own human rights defenders’ group, but I decided that it is not necessary nowadays, because we have enough human rights defenders’ groups, which are stronger and more experienced. I became an advisor in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Ukraine. And I am working there on the platform where NGOs and deputies from parliament can consolidate and fight together for our goals.
Smerechuk: Can you say how many Ukrainian political prisoners there are in Russia and how many have been released?
Afanasiev: For now there are 48 political prisoners and this number grows up every month. There are a lot of people who were arrested for 10 or 15 days in Crimea. It is a horrible situation, it is a change in strategy of the Russian Federation, because they try to threaten people and they just arrest them for couple days, and people are very threatened after that. And that is why we should become stronger. Only three people were released – Nadia Savchenko, me and Yuri Soloshenko. The problem is that if Russia releases Ukrainian political prisoners, they have to admit that Russian soldiers are on Ukrainian territory. And all our documents will be proven.
Smerechuk: Just in the past week, five Crimean Tatars were detained by Crimean police for five days when they came to support a fellow Crimean Tatar, MarlenMustafaiev, had been arrested. And also this week, the pre-trial hearings have begun in the case of MykolaSemena, who’s a Ukrainian journalist. Who’s been writing for 15 years through the Soviet times, but is not allowed to publish anymore. What are the conditions currently in Crimea? What’s the situation with human rights and free speech for people who regard themselves as Ukrainian citizens or Crimean Tatars?
Afanasiev: With angels. Crimea SOS [an NGO] created a webpage with human rights violations. There are more than 300 violations of human rights in the peninsula, and all these cases are already proven [documented]. It means that in Crimea, any institutes of human rights, they’re almost not working real advocacy because everybody is working for the FSB. That’s why all our citizens and other people they couldn’t get any defence.
Smerechuk: Particularly for Crimean Tatars, it seems that if one is a Crimean Tatar, then your rights are curtailed.
Afanasiev: That’s why I’m talking about sanctions, like Jackson-Vanik, which was in Russia/USSR in 1970’s. It’s the sanction by the United States against the Soviet Union, when Russia would not let Jews to go out from Soviet Union territory. It was discrimination against a whole nation. This is the same situation you have in peninsula with Crimean Tatar people, and maybe we should push on the Russian Federation with different kind of sanctions.
Smerechuk: Okay, Hennadiy, you have lived through a horrific experience through the past three years, and returning home to Crimea is pretty impossible for you at the moment. What are your plans for the future?
Afanasiev: Well, it’s impossible for me to go to Crimea because I am a on their terrorist list, but I am studying to become a for software test engineering and I really like this job, and this at my hello for HRs.
Smerechuk: So, you’re looking forward, you’re moving on to more positive things?
Afanasiev: I should earn some money, and to do some things which are very good for my soul, not just all the time fighting and fighting. But I can do it together, (both). Make it my mission to help people, people who have problems, and are in trouble. And at this time I can do something for myself after almost two and a half years in prison.
Smerechuk: Well, we wish you the very best, and thank you very much for coming and telling us about your experiences and your work.
European Foreign Ministers Visit Ukraine
A number of European Foreign Ministers travelled to Ukraine this week. Britain’s Boris Johnson and Poland’s Witold Waszczykowski came in a joint visit on Wednesday 1st March. They met with Ukraine’s President Poroshenko and Foreign Minister PavloKlimkin, and discussed war in the Donbass, relations with the EU, and Crimea. The European ministers also met with Crimean Tatar leaders Mustafa Dzemilev and RefatChubarov. All the meetings included discussions on the need to come up with a new format for international engagement with Ukraine. And the need to keep Ukraine on the international agenda.
Later in the show, we’ll bring you a feature interview with Crimean Tatar activist Hennadiy Afanasiev who witnessed the annexation of Crimea three years ago this week. He shares his story of capture and imprisonment in 2014, and his thoughts on the situation there now.
Germany’s Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel visited on the 2nd and 3rd of March, in his first trip to Ukraine since assuming the role in January. He met with Ukraine’s leadership, also to discuss the situation in the Donbas and Crimea. Ukraine Calling listeners will remember that Germany has played a key role in trying to mediate the conflict in Ukraine. It is one of the members of the Normandy Four, along with France, Ukraine, and Russia. Germany’s original representative to that group, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was elected Germany’s President a few weeks ago, on 12th February.
One Step Closer to EU Visa Free Travel for Ukrainians
Ukraine was also on the agenda in Brussels this week. EU Parliament and Council negotiators came to agreement on how to waive visa requirements for Ukrainians. They revised the visa waiver suspension mechanism, so now visas will be reintroduced more easily in exceptional cases. The change now has to be endorsed by the Civil Liberties Committee and the EU Parliament as a whole, signed by presidents of the Parliament and Council, and published in the EU Official Journal. Twenty days after that the law will come into effect. And Ukrainians will be able to travel to all EU countries (except the UK and Ireland) for 90 days without requiring a visa, but they will need a biometric passport. This change does not include the right to employment in the EU. These negotiations on visa liberalization between Ukraine and the EU began back in 2008.
And ahead of the opening of the plenary session, a group of Euro MPs organized a little flash mob in the Brussels Parliament in support of Ukraine, on Wednesday March the 1st. The aim was to draw attention to Ukraine, to the memory of the Maidan protests, the ongoing war. Along with members of the Ukrainian community they held signs that said Europe = Ukraine. At one point, all together they said, SlavaUkraini – HeroiamSlava. Someone said, ‘one more time,’ so they repeated the chant a few times. We’ll post a video of the event as captured by RadioSvoboda on our webpage.
The impact of war on children is not often in the news. This week the issue received attention from Ukraine’s president and children’s rights activists. President Poroshenko signed a document into law that will increase social support for children and youth living in the war zone, on both sides of the front. Measures include financial support for education, scholarships, free textbooks, and housing in dormitories. Children’s rights activist Liudmyla Volynets held a press conference to draw attention to the issue. She said that exact statistics are not available, but an estimated 580,000 children have been traumatized, in one way or another. 22,000 live in the war zone, on both sides of the front. State records show that 68 children have been killed during the war,186 wounded. Hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes, or orphaned. She appealed for more assistance to this vulnerable population.
OSCE monitors came under threat in Ukraine this week. A team working outside Donest’k in an area not under Ukrainian control were surrounded and held at gunpoint when they were trying to launch a drone to observe and document whether the cease fire was being violated. The US and other countries condemned this violation.
The situation in the war zone continues to be hot. Intensive heavy shelling continues. Over the past week 7 Ukrainian soldiers were killed, 40 wounded.
Savchenko in the News Again
Pilot turned political prisoner turned Member of Parliament NadiyaSavchenko was in the news again. Since being released from a Russian prison she has focused on the issue of prisoners of war. Last week she again travelled to the parts of Ukraine not controlled by the government. In a press conference on February 28th she announced that she was prepared to negotiate directly with Olexandr Zakharchenko. He’s the leader of the self-proclaimed Donets’k People’s Republic. Savchenko also criticized Ukraine’s President Poroshenko, calling him her Enemy # 2. She calls Russian President Putin Enemy # 1.
News Museum Opens 2 March
This week a News Museum opened in Kyiv. It’s a special exhibit looking at the history of news on Ukraine’s first private TV channel. Studio 1+1 started producing TV news 20 years ago, and they called the show TSN, TelevizinaSluzhbaNovyn [Television News Service.] It’s one of the most recognizable news brands in Ukraine. The exhibit contains archival materials from the first episodes of the programme. And historic artifacts, like the actual blue and yellow flag that was brought into Ukraine’s parliament on 24 August 1991 when independence was proclaimed. There’s also an interactive dimension – visitors can try being a news anchor, vote on t the top 100 news stories, meet TV personalities, and more. The exhibit will be on until March 26th at the Mystets’kyi Arsenal in Central Kyiv.
Les Kurbas Exhibition
This week there was an exciting exhibition opening for lovers of theatre and 1920s modernism at the Ukrainian Museum of Theatre, Music, and Cinema in Kyiv. The Museum, together with VirlanaTkacz of Yara Arts Group, New York, presented “Les Kurbas in Kyiv.” Les Kurbas is considered the most important Ukrainian theatre director of the 1920s Avantgarde and this exhibit recreate the staging of three of his plays. Despite the Stalinist repression and total ban of Kurbas and his theatre, some individual artifacts and documents survived, locked up in special deposits. The exhibition shows recreated and original costumes, silent film recordings, and audio recordings, original stage design models and posters of plays. Put together they provide the viewer with a good sense of the avant-garde ideas and aesthetics of Kurbas’ theatre.
There are many interesting contemporary artists to see in Kyiv this week, usually to be found in private galleries. However, a public gallery, the Art Arsenal, has just opened a large exhibition of Alexander Hnylytskiy called “The Reality of Illusion.” Hnylytsky was a leader of the “New wave” movement in Ukrainian art in the 1990s, which found inspiration in the unpredictability and instability of life in the period after Perestroika. The exhibition is more than just a retrospective with examples of his paintings, sculpture and media works. It is built, like a puzzle, around the theme of a world where reality and illusion shape shift and permeate one another.
Asan Khairetdinov is a Crimean Tatar musician and journalist. He lives in Simferopol, Crimea, and sings in his native Crimean Tatar. Here he is performing Vatanym, which means, My Homeland.
Next week we’ll have more stories and current events. Tune in for a new episode. And we’d love to hear from you. Write to us at [email protected]. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Thanks for listening.
Interview transcribed by LarysaIarovenko, Nykole King, and Maksym Sviezhentsev. Headlines by Marta Dyczok. Culture by Oksana Smerechuk. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk.Web support Natalia Kucheriava.