«I participated in a pro-Ukrainian protest against Russian occupation». Afanasiev tells his story of what happened to him after that in 2014
Hello and welcome to Ukraine Calling. I’m Tanya Bednarczyk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. This has been a difficult week of remembrance in Ukraine. Four years ago, on 18-20 February 2014, the EuroMaidan protests were violently attacked. By the time it was all over more than 100 people had been killed. Two days later, then President Victor Yanukovych disappeared only to resurface in Russia.
A few days after that, Russia began its stealth invasion of Crimea. Many of those who protested were arrested. Some were imprisoned. Among them were filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who remains behind bars in a Russian penal colony.
Another was Hennadiy Afanasiev. Born in Simferopol, he was not political. But after Russia invaded, he participated in the protests against the occupation. He was picked up by the Russian Secret Police, tortured, deported to Russia, and imprisoned. He’s one of the few who has been released. He spoke to Ukraine Calling’s Oksana Smerechuk about his ordeal last year. Here’s what he said.
Warning: this interview contains an account of being tortured, some listeners may find parts of what follows disturbing.
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.
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. Hennadiy Afanasiev 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 Yuriy Soloshenko 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, Marlen Mustafaiev, had been arrested. And also this week, the pre-trial hearings have begun in the case of Mykola Semena, 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.
Crimean Tatars have been particularly targeted by the Russian authorities who occupied Crimea in 2014. Because most Crimean Tatars are loyal to Ukraine. Their leaders have been forced into exile or imprisoned. But this is nothing new. On February 23, 1918, a hundred years ago, the first president of the short-lived Crimean People’s Republic Noman Çelebicihan was executed by a Bolshevik firing squad. His body was dumped into the Black Sea. But Crimean Tatars remember, commemorate, and teach others about him. A contemporary tribute to him is by the Crimean Tatar band Shatur-Gudur, who had to flee to Kyiv after their homeland was invaded again in 2014. The song is called simply “No man.”
Next week we’ll have a new interview for you with people who make things happen in Ukraine, so tune in again for a new edition of Ukraine Calling. We would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected]. This is Tanya Bednarczyk in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.
Interview transcribed by Larysa Iarovenko, Nykole King, and Maksym Sviezhentsev. Music by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support Kyrylo Loukerenko.