How prisoners in Ukraine’s occupied territories live, work and survive

Prisoners in the so-called “People’s Republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk are facing terrible living and working conditions – and being kept beyond their sentence. RU

Оксана Труфанова
24 July 2018


Illustration by Irina Stasuk. All rights reserved.

In May and June 2018, the situation around the city of Horlivka just outside of Donetsk deteriorated rapidly. Near this “new hot spot” are a number of penitentiary establishments, each holding a minimum of 500 prisoners who are basically captives of the new Donbas authorities. Over half of them were tried in Ukrainian courts for criminal offences, and many are serving sentences of more than five years. How are they fed, how are they protected from the bombings and shellfire – and why are they not being returned to serve their time in Ukraine, given that is where they were tried and convicted?

In late December 2015, President Petro Poroshenko signed the so-called “Savchenko Law” (after Nadiya Savchenko, one of the law’s authors). This law guaranteed that every day spent by a suspect in pre-trial detention would be counted as two days of their sentence. This was a means of satisfying suspects’ rights under the minimum conditions required by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Thus, a detainee stuck in pre-trial detention for years, deprived of sunlight and fresh air while the investigators and courts twiddle their thumbs, could at least rely on a shorter prison sentence. In Russia, a similar system has been under discussion for some years.

Between the passing of the Savchenko Law and its repeal in mid-2017, many Ukrainian prisoners and their defence lawyers contacted the courts to try and take advantage of the new law. One of them was Igor Tovma, an inmate of Prison Colony 27 in Horlivka, a city to the northeast of Donetsk. In February 2016, Sloviansk city court made the appropriate changes to Tovma’s sentence. But Tovma was not only not released at the appropriate time – he was also subjected to pressure and threats. The prison administration claimed that they had no obligation to comply with Ukrainian law and, in defiance of all international legal standards, initiated a review of Tovma’s sentence in line with the new laws of the self-declared “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR).

In order to carry out its plan to prolong Tovma’s imprisonment, the prison administration resorted to further trickery – he was forced to sign documents renouncing his Ukrainian citizenship and adopt citizenship of the “LNR”, as if this was an internationally recognised state. Acts like this put the lives of people stuck behind bars at risk. Rumour has it that inmates who fail to comply with prison rules in Horlivka are simply shot.

“It’s not just the guards or the ‘fighters’ who come to visit the colony bosses or get their cars fixed who could put a bullet in you – it could happen any time if there’s shooting going on,” says Ivan, a former inmate of the Horlivka colony. “When they were bombing us, the guards all ran off and hid, and just left us there. They couldn’t give a damn about us convicts. Sometimes you would go a couple of days without food – the suppliers didn’t bring it in case they got shot at on the way. Nowadays they at least feed you.”

Andrey O. is another former inmate of Prison Colony 27, released a year and a half ago.


Illustration by Irina Stasuk. All rights reserved.

“My sentence ‘overran’ by two days,” he tells me. “Up to the last minute I was sure they weren’t going to let me out. The administration is keen to hang onto every ‘old’ con, given that there are hardly any new ones. Ukraine has stopped sending its citizens to serve their stretch there, and there aren’t enough inmates in the ‘LNR’ and ‘DNR’ to justify the number of staff. And if there are no cons left, where are they going to find work?”

Both the UN Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are aware of the issues around prison colonies in the self-proclaimed “People’s Republics”, including the use of torture and illegal holding of prisoners. The first body would only comment on the situation in private, to keep their names out of the media; the second said that they lacked detailed information on the situation but would check it out.

Meanwhile, a number of experts are linking the silence of these international organisations to the fact that there are now Ukrainian citizens working for them – local people, in other words, rather than foreigners, as used to be the case. Penitentiary establishments in the “DNR” and “LNR” are, it seems, undergoing inspections, but there’s nothing to be done about it. But it is well known that the only people who have direct access to prisons in the Donbas are International Red Cross employees, who won’t say anything in public for fear of losing this access.

The Ukrainian side, after this year’s appointment of Valeria Lutovska as Human Rights Ombudsperson, replacing Lyudmila Denisova, is also not actively working on the release of prisoners held in the “lost” colonies of the “DNR” and “LNR”, and who are entitled to be released. Dialogue on this question has also been complicated by a new Ukrainian law, passed in January 2018, on de-occupying the Donbas. The Ombudsperson’s office told me that it would also not be easy to either transfer these prisoners to a prison in another Ukrainian region or to apply the Savchenko Law to them, since this would require a written request from the prisoner himself. Another legitimate question now arises: is a prisoner held in the “DNR” or “LNR” entitled to send such a request to the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice, and would this be physically possible without risk to his health?

Before the start of the armed conflict, there were 16,000 prisoners serving sentences in prison colonies in the Donbas region. Only 186 of them have been transferred to Ukraine. Former members of ex-ombudsperson Valeriya Lutkovska’s staff tell me that they were strung along for months, never knowing which prisoners would be exchanged by “DNR” and “LNR” officials, when the exchange would take place and how many prisoners would be involved. And it was always the wrong people who got transferred – not the ones that had requested it. It looked as though the other side was taking bribes to transfer people.

Lawyers from the Kharkiv Human Rights Group have so far sent the ECHR 15 complaints from people imprisoned in the occupied areas.


Illustration by Irina Stasuk. All rights reserved.

“The ECHR has received complaints against both Russia and Ukraine,” Yevgen Zakharov, head of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union and director of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group, tells me. “They include grievances over the infringement of Article 5 (the right to freedom and personal immunity), Article 13 (the right to effective legal defence) and Article 8 (the right to respect for personal and family life) of the UN Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.”

“The convicts held in different parts of the DNR and LNR are having their rights infringed as a result of the armed conflict, in the same way as other residents of the occupied territories,” says Zakharov. “There have been several shell attacks on prison colonies, resulting in deaths and injuries as well as the destruction of buildings and interruption of electricity services and other utilities. The inmates of the colonies have been subjected to cold and hunger and a lack of medical services. They have, moreover, no access to the rule of law, since the question of the representation of their interests in the courts and other official bodies in the controlled and occupied territories has not been resolved.

“Their specific right to freedom is also being infringed: some have been detained without any appropriate legal basis for this – either a trial in a first-instance court was incomplete, or the sentence wasn’t carried out, or the court was using legislation that didn’t apply to the controlled territories, or they were entitled to an amnesty or early release, or because of the Savchenko Law and so on. Many have lost any chance of contacting their families and friends, since transfers and visits are now impossible. If a prisoner has been released but doesn’t have a passport, he can’t cross a demarcation line as release documents issued by the DNR and LNR are not recognised in the rest of Ukraine.”

Why do the so-called “republics” need all these prisoners, anyway? The prison colonies obviously provide employment for part of the Donbas population, but there is another possible reason.

Pavel Lisyansky, director of the Eastern Human Rights Group and co-author of the report “On the State of Human Rights in the Ukrainian-controlled territories of the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts”, tells me: “Of course there are people being held captive there. Some of them should be freed under the terms of the Savchenko Law; others as part of a presidential amnesty, and there are still others whom they just won’t release, and these people can spend several extra years behind bars. Prisoners in the occupied Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts have basically ended up as forced labourers, exploited in industrial zones for the enrichment of others. Their unpaid labour produces breeze blocks, small scale mining machinery, souvenir products and so on. All prisoners are forced to work: if they don’t, they face sanctions such as solitary confinement or physical abuse.”

On this website you can find a description of the activities of Prison Colony 27. Before the conflict, this penitential facility produced railway parts, chain-link fencing, reinforced concrete units and many other goods. It was also engaged in metal finishing and woodworking services, vehicle and agricultural maintenance and the sorting and packing of various materials.

The website stresses that up to 25 prisoners could be hired as labourers on a contract basis. But now that the colony has been removed from Ukraine’s balance sheet and transferred to that of a “republic” which is engaged in military activity against it, obviously there can be no question of any contracts. So how are the convicts occupied now?

“They are all engaged in the same thing – fraud,” says an anonymous Horlivka resident who used to work at the colony. “They phone people up – both inmates’ family members and random members of the public – and force them to transfer money to bank cards by hoodwinking them. ‘Your son has been involved in a road traffic accident where someone has died, and unless you transfer a couple of thousand roubles, hryvnya or dollars, he’ll be imprisoned or killed.’ They introduce themselves as witnesses or even police officers. It’s the same old trick, but the stories are all different and people are ready to hand over their last kopeck to save their loved one. The colony administration rakes in hundreds of thousands a month. It’s true. I used to work there. Do you think it’s a secret here? No way. Everybody knows what’s going on.”

Prison Colony 27 is headed by Alexander Lyashenko, who, at 40, is considered the youngest boss in the prison system. According to former colleagues, before the arrival of the “fighters” he started off as a Ukrainian patriot but changed sides afterwards. I sent both him and “DNR” ombudsperson Darya Morozova a press request to explain why prisoners’ rights are being infringed and why those who have valid legal documents showing the length of time they spent in pre-trial detention have not yet been released under the Savchenko Law. The requests have, however, been ignored, and I have only received a reply from Morozova telling me that requests have to be either handed in in person or sent by post. I have received no response to specific questions about human rights infringements and obstacles to compliance with the Savchenko Law, as well as reasons why prisoners convicted in Ukrainian courts are still imprisoned in colonies which are not under the control of the Ukrainian government.

The Eastern Human Rights Group’s report also documents the effective absence of a public defender's office in the “LNR”: “At present, this institution does not exist in the so-called ‘LNR’. Defence lawyers whose evidence of their legal right to practice at the bar has been issued by Ukraine have no right to offer legal services in the so-called ‘LNR’, as they may themselves risk being suspected of ‘aiding and abetting a terrorist organisation’.” 

Lisyansky concludes that the issue of prisoners in the Donbas can only be settled collectively – that is, through collective protest by family members, sympathisers and the convicts themselves. Lisyansky also stresses that the Russian Federation can also use its influence on the “LNR” and “DNR” authorities to help resolve the issue.

Read this interview with Pavel Lisyansky on new forms of labour organising in Ukraine's frontline territories. 

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