For Ukrainian convicts, a strange adventure through Russian prisons

Oleksandr Fedorenko’s adventure begins with a victory for his native Ukraine.

It was last October, and the Ukrainian army was pushing for an offensive that would eventually liberate the southern city of Kherson. As the Russian occupation forces prepared to withdraw, they brought with them 2,500 Ukrainian criminals from the city’s prisons, including Mr.

What followed over the next few months was an eerie journey that took some convicts over 4,000 miles across five prisons and five countries.

“We were yelled at, beaten, humiliated,” said Fedorenko, 47, who had served a sentence in Kherson for theft. “Bend your face down, don’t look, don’t speak, and blow, blow, blow.”

The behavior of the Russians confused the convicts from the start, no one, not even those who appeared to be their new warden, had much idea of ​​what to do with them.

First, inmates are largely left in their own devices in Ukrainian prisons. Then they were suddenly, and without explanation, transported to Russian-controlled territory. But nothing underlines their arbitrary treatment better than what happened when some of them exhausted their original convictions.

The convicts were surprised when Russian guards came to escort them out of prison when their sentences expired. But at the prison entrance, a bigger shock awaited: Some were immediately arrested by Russian police and charged with immigration violations; they were fined and charged with illegally entering this country.

Ruslan Osadchyi, another Kherson prisoner, said: “They asked me, ‘How did you get into Russia?’ “’You brought me here, under the muzzle of an automatic gun!’”

“Like everything in Russia, it’s completely absurd,” added Mr Osadchyi.

No Russian official has publicly acknowledged the transfer of Kherson prisoners into Russia, which may violate international law, which prohibits the forced removal of people from occupied areas. Officials in Russia’s punishment system and the national police did not respond to requests for comment.

The Kherson prisoners’ ordeal began a week after Russia invaded Ukraine last February. Like most Ukrainians, the initial speed of Russia’s advance in the south of the country caught them off guard.

They watched Russian armored troops enter the city across the Dnipro River on the television in their cells.

Ukrainian officials admit that the prisoners – some of whom have been convicted of murder, kidnapping and rape – have largely been forgotten in Ukraine’s chaotic retreat.

“There is a war going on,” Ludmila Denisova, who was Ukraine’s human rights chief at the time, said in an interview, describing the reaction she received from Ukrainian authorities at the time. there. “Who has time for prisoners?”

In at least one Kherson prison, inmates said retreating Ukrainian officials plundered food supplies, leaving them to their fate under the protection of several officers who remained. their position.

Andrii Stukalin, one of the prisoners, said: “We feel bitter in our hearts because Ukraine, our Motherland, has left us behind. “We want them to at least open the door to our cell so we can defend ourselves, so we can fight for our lives.”

Then one day, the TV suddenly changed to a Russian program. The prisoners immediately understood: a new law had arrived.

The Russian occupation authorities initially left Kherson prisoners to fend for themselves, focusing instead on purging Kyiv supporters from the city and looting. Food was scarce, and prisoners sometimes ate only one meal a day.

In the fall, there was an explosion in the distance, heralding the approach of Ukrainian troops that were pushing back Kherson.

As the shelling drew nearer, the occupation authorities moved prisoners from Kherson’s four prisons to a facility further away from the fighting. The move forced some 2,500 men to take turns sleeping in a space designed for 500.

A few weeks later, an even bigger shock occurred: a unit of Russian special forces arrived at the prison to transport the prisoners back to Russia.

“Nobody asked for our consent, nor did we think about it,” Fedorenko said.

According to four former prisoners interviewed, on arrival at a Crimean transit prison, Kherson prisoners were brutally beaten by masked guards. Mr. Fedorenko said he got out of the car with his face covered in blood. Some were knocked unconscious, he said.

Mr Osadchyi claimed the guards shouted “Hello world Russia!” when they beat him.

All prisoners were stripped of their belongings and dressed in prison robes and rough boots. It’s a drastic change from the informal rules of Ukrainian prisons, where inmates typically manage the prison area and wear civilian clothes, former inmates said.

After stopping in Crimea, the Ukrainians were pushed further east and scattered throughout the prisons of southern Russia, thousands of miles from their homes. Overall, Ukrainian officials estimate that Russian forces forcibly brought about 3,500 imprisoned Ukrainian citizens back to Russia, including 2,500 from Kherson, as they retreated from some of the occupied territory. last year.

At first, the Kherson prisoners thought they would be forced into the prisoner battalions that the Russian mercenary group Wagner had formed. But Wagner’s recruiters come and go, not even accepting a handful of Ukrainian volunteers.

As time went on, Mr. Fedorenko and his companions increasingly wondered: Why are they in Russia?

They were not forced to dig up Russian defensive fortifications, nor was there any attempt to exchange them for Russian prisoners of war in Ukraine.

“It makes no sense at all,” said Mr Osadchyi, 44, who has served 12 years for the murder. “They cannot understand that we are foreigners who have nothing to do with the Russian Federation.”

In Russia, prison officials issue Russian passports to Ukrainian prisoners, but very few accept them. Some rejected them out of patriotism; others fear punishment by the government in Kyiv.

“I am living my seventh decade. How can I suddenly accept Russian citizenship, if I’m Ukrainian?” Anatoly Korin, who served in prison in Kherson for theft, said.

The situation of released prisoners was initially complicated by the lack of diplomatic relations between Russia and Ukraine, meaning there was no legal place to return them.

Earlier this month, three Kherson prisoners went on a five-day hunger strike to protest their detention in an immigrant prison in the southern Russian city of Volgograd.

Some of the Ukrainians held in immigration prisons ended up receiving help from Unmode, a collective of prisoners’ rights advocates in the countries of the former Soviet Union. With Unmode’s legal assistance, they were able to appeal their immigration rulings after spending weeks or even months in detention.

However, the jarring turns of their journey are not over yet.

A group of 14 ex-convicts were put in a prisoner van 1,000 miles across Russia for deportation to Latvia. When they arrived at the border, some of them received a note from the Latvian immigration authorities that said in Ukrainian: “At these difficult times, the Republic of Latvia and its people are ready to welcome you. accepting Ukrainian citizens with an open heart.”

But to their surprise, they were intercepted at the border by special police units of the Baltic state and escorted back to Russia.

The Latvian Ministry of Interior and Border Protection did not respond to requests for comment.

Eventually, with Unmode’s help, Mr. Fedorenko reached the Georgian border and left Russia. But the vast majority of Kherson prisoners are still in Russian prisons, awaiting the end of their sentences, some of them years away.

Unmode organizer in Georgia, Aidana Fedosik, said the plight of Kherson prisoners was a microcosm of the Russian occupation regime in Ukraine.

“It was the 19th century mentality of taking a piece of land for personal glory,” she said. “But why do you need it? What do you want to do with this?”

From Georgia, Mr. Fedorenko and about 15 other Kherson prisoners eventually made it home, mainly by traveling through Moldova, which borders their homeland. From there, they returned home, although some were detained by Ukrainian intelligence officers, interrogated for 12 hours and put through a polygraph on suspicion of collaboration.

Back in Ukraine, Mr. Fedorenko said he now volunteered to join Unmode to support his countrymen who are still being held in Russian prisons and hope to leave professional theft behind. After years of captivity, he said he was not ready to volunteer for the army, but would fight if mobilized.

“Everybody hates this Russian Federation, because we all know that we are nobody there,” he said by phone from his hometown in central Ukraine. “Because there are no laws to be respected, especially if you are a prisoner.”

Natalya Yermak Reporting contributions from Kiev, Ukraine, and Alina Lobzina from London.


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