Ukrainian citizens disappear and rot in Russian prisons

Lina Kapatsyna frequently has dreams in which her mother calls her. Her mother informs her that she is returning home in those visions.

In April, men dressed in military clothes abducted Vita Hannych, 45, from her home in eastern Ukraine. She never came back.

Later, Hannych’s family discovered that he is being held in the territory of the Donetsk region that is currently occupied by Russia. Hannych has experienced seizures for a long time due to a brain cyst.

It is still unknown why her mother, who is “a calm, civilian, and sick person” and has never handled a weapon, was jailed, according to Kapatsyna, who spoke to The Associated Press.

Hannych is one of the hundreds, and possibly thousands, of noncombatants from Ukraine who are thought to have been detained by Russian soldiers for months after their invasion. Some people are treated as prisoners of war despite the fact that they were not there during the conflict. Others are in a legal limbo since they are neither being investigated for crimes nor are POWs.

When Russian troops captured Hannych some weeks after the invasion on February 24 in her village of Volodymyrivka, she was only wearing a sweatsuit and slippers. Moscow still has control over it.

Her family first anticipated that she would return home soon. Kapatsyna claimed that Hannych had no connections to the military or law enforcement and that Russian forces were known to keep individuals for two to three days as part of “filtration” before releasing them.

Kapatsyna and her grandmother, who is 70 years old, began looking for her when she wasn’t freed. At initially, attempts to contact various Russian-installed officials and government organizations in the Donetsk region through letters and visits were unsuccessful.

“‘We did not take her away,’ was the universal response from everyone. If no one abducted her, then who did? said Kapatsyna, who left the area in March to travel to Dnipro, a city under Ukrainian authority.

Then, they received some clarification: a letter from the Moscow-installed prosecutor’s office in the Donetsk region stated that Hannych was detained in Olenivka, another Russian-controlled city.

The inmates claimed that Hannych was a sniper, which Kapatsyna’s family finds ridiculous given how ill she is. She was diagnosed with a brain cyst, “residual encephalopathy,” and “general convulsive episodes,” according to medical papers viewed by the AP.

The same facility where Hannych spent 100 days was described by Anna Vorosheva as having filthy drinking water, no heat, no showers, forced shift sleeping, and new captives wailing from being beaten.

Vorosheva, 46, claimed that other than “smirks and comments about Nazis,” she was not informed of the reason she was being held. This is a reference to Russia’s untrue assertion that its so-called “special military operation” was an effort to “denazify” Ukraine. Additionally, she said that the personnel had added, “Be happy we’re not beating you.”

Authorities in Donetsk designated Hannych a POW and recently informed her family that she is being held captive in the captured city of Mariupol. It is still unknown whether or when she will be released.

Nearly 900 civilians have been kidnapped by Russia since the start of the war; more than half of them are still in detention, according to petitions from the Center for Civil Liberties, the main human rights organization in Ukraine.

Dmytro Lubinets, the human rights representative for Ukraine, increased the figure and claimed that his office had received questions about more than 20,000 “civilian hostages” held by Russia.

According to Russian attorney Leonid Solovyov, he has received more than 100 demands relating to Ukrainian civilians. Like his client, Mykyta Shkriabin, he said he was able to assist 30–40 people in confirming the individual they were looking for was in Russian detention without any sort of legal status.

The student from the Kharkiv region of northern Ukraine was taken into custody by Russian military forces in March and has since been jailed without being charged or subject to any sort of legal action.

According to his mother Tetiana, Shkriabin, who was 19 at the time, and his family were taking refuge from the fighting in a basement. He left for supplies during a break and never came back.

Tetiana Shkriabina revealed to the AP that she found out about his capture by Russian military via witnesses.

Solovyov received confirmation from the Russian Defense Ministry many months later that Shkriabin was indeed being held for “resisting the special military operation.” According to Solovyov, there is no such crime listed in Russian law, and even if there were, Shkriabin would have faced formal charges and been the subject of an investigation by now. The ministry steadfastly declined to reveal his whereabouts.

Additionally, when Solovyov complained to Russia’s Investigative Committee about the incarceration, the committee stated that Shkriabin is neither a suspect nor an accused and that no criminal investigations have been initiated against him.

The attorney claimed that Shkriabin, who turned 20 while held captive, has not been given the POW designation, adding that “His legal status is merely a hostage.”

Requests for comment from the Russian Interior and Defense Ministries went unanswered.

Similar situations to those of Shkriabin and Hannych occur frequently.

Iryna Horobtsova, a specialist in information technology, was detained by Russian soldiers in Kherson, a city in the south, when it was taken over by Moscow in May. According to her sister, Elena Kornii, they searched her residence and took a laptop, two cellphones, and a number of flash drives before removing her. They assured her parents she would return home that night, but she didn’t.

Before being detained, Horobtsova remained in the city and spoke out against the war on social media, according to Kornii. She had participated in anti-Russian demonstrations and assisted locals by driving them to work or locating expensive prescriptions.

Kornii stated that her sister had no connection to the military and that she had not broken any laws in the country.

The defense attorney for Horobtsova, Emil Kurbedinov, declared that he thought Kherson was the scene of “purges of the disloyal” by Russian security services.

She was still being held, he discovered from Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB. He was informed that Horobtsova was in a prison facility there by the Interior Ministry in the Crimea that Moscow had occupied. Kurbedinov attempted to visit her, but the authorities would not admit to holding such a prisoner.

She was detained, according to the lawyer, because “she opposed the special military operation, and a decision regarding her would be made when the special military operation is over,” according to what authorities told him.

She was “unlawfully imprisoned,” according to him.

The fate of his deputy is characterized by Dmytro Orlov, mayor of the captured city of Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia region, as “an totally arbitrary incarceration.”

No charges have been brought against Ivan Samoydyuk, who was apprehended by Russian troops soon after they took control of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in March, according to Orlov.

The mayor exclaimed, “We’re not even sure if he’s alive! Imagine the fate of common Ukrainian residents if we are unable to obtain clarification from the Russians regarding the fate of a deputy mayor.

The Geneva Conventions permit a state to hold civilians indefinitely in occupied territory, but according to Mykhailo Savva of the Expert Council of the Center for Civil Liberties, “as soon as the rationale that necessitated the custody of this civilian evaporates, then this individual must be released.”

Savva noted that civilians cannot be designated as POWs in accordance with international law and demanded “no special terms, no deals, just liberation.”

According to Yulia Gorbunova, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, relocating a civilian forcibly to one’s own territory or land one occupies is against international law and may be considered a war crime.

It is more difficult to liberate captive civilians since there is no legal framework for exchanging noncombatants for POWs, according to Gorbunova.

But since the war started, Kyiv has been able to send some back home. According to Andriy Yermak, the chief of the Ukrainian presidential office, 132 citizens were freed from Russian captivity in 2022.

This month, Lubinets, the Ukrainian human rights ombudsman, met with Tatyana Moskalkova, his Russian counterpart.

The Russian side “agreed to find out where they are, in what condition, and why they are being detained,” he claimed, adding that he sent Moskalkova lists of some of the 20,000 Ukrainian civilians he claimed were being held by Russia.

After receiving such information, Lubinets stated that “the method for their return” will be questioned.

 

This item has been modified to reflect that Kapatsyna’s grandmother is 70 years old, not 64 as was first reported.

 

Reporting from Tallinn, Estonia, was Litvinova. From Tallinn, Yuras Karmanau contributed to this story.

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