Photo provided by the Embassy of Ukraine to the United Kingdom
A talk by former Ukrainian political prisoner in Russia, Hennadii Afanasiev
On 25 April, Hennadii Afanasiev spoke in the Macmillan Room, Portcullis House, to members of the British Ukrainian Society.
He recounted his arrest and torture by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), and described the two plus years he spent in captivity. Hennadii is now an activist and member of a Ukrainian NGO that fights for the freedom of Ukrainian political prisoners and against human rights abuses in Crimea. He is also an advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine on the release of political prisoners.
Hennadii is currently travelling around Europe and America to bring attention to cases of political prisoners held by Russia and its policy of torture and abuse. Gennadii called on British officials and parliamentarians to raise awareness of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia, to maintain pressure on Russia by continuing sanctions against the Kremlin.
Here, in his own words, is his story:
I was born in Simferopol in 1990, just before Ukraine gained independence. I have a university degree and also worked as a professional photographer. During the early stages of Russia’s occupation of Crimea, I was helping Ukrainian soldiers who were stationed on the peninsula, and also participated in pro-Ukrainian demonstrations against Russian occupation.
On 9 May 2014, I took part in a Victory Day Parade in Simferopol. I was walking in line, holding a picture of my great grandfather who participated in WWII, when suddenly some people dressed in civilian clothing with automatic rifles kicked me and bundled me into a car.
They turned out to be FSB officers. In the car they threw me on the floor and put a bag over my head, and while driving they were punching me in my head and stomach, threatening me for participating in pro-Ukrainian protests against Russian occupation. They said they would take me to the forest and I would dig my own grave; I believed them, because very recently a pro-Ukraine activist was found in the forest without genitals, eyes and other body parts which had been removed.
They drove me to my house, took the keys to my flat and guided me inside. They threw me on the floor and searched the flat, but didn’t find anything. They took my photography equipment and all my money.
After that they took me to the FSB office and put me in a cold basement where I spent 10 days without food or water. They undressed me, punched me and didn’t let me sleep. Every 15 minutes during those 10 days, they came to my cell and asked me to state who I am and where I am from.
During the first five days they beat me repeatedly with boxing gloves on, I believe to avoid leaving bruises. All this time I was chained to an iron table. They beat me and threatened me to get me talking, but when it was clear that I had no useful information, they asked me to incriminate myself. I didn’t have a lawyer present but was surrounded by FSB officers and investigators from Moscow. They demanded that I admit that on 9 May 2014 I wanted to blow up the Eternal Light Memorial in Simferopol. This was an absurd request as they had detained me in front of people without finding any explosives, guns or other proof that I was a terrorist. This is why they had to torture me.
Then the real torture began. It is not a pleasant thing to talk about but I have to speak out because people need to know what is happening to people who are unlawfully detained in Russia – there are currently 48 political prisoners in Russia still suffering. For five days they put a gas mask on my head with a long hose; there was a filter and they would press the button at the end of the filter to block my oxygen supply until I started to suffocate. At the last minute, they would unscrew the valve on the filter and spray some gas inside; I’d start to throw up and choke on my own vomit, so I went from suffocating to choking, over and over again. When I was about to lose consciousness, they would give me some ammonia to smell. I often asked God to die because the torture was too much to bear. Because of this torture, I eventually pled guilty.
After that they started to become interested in Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko, two other Ukrainian political prisoners. I refused to implicate them but in response they undressed me, chained me to a chair and connected electrical wires to my genitals. They electrocuted me again and again. You need only five seconds to lose consciousness after such treatment. That is the way they make people put their signature on prepared documents stating they are a terrorist. They also used my mother to threaten me. They told me she was a supporter of a terrorist and they would arrest her because of me.
In the end, they demanded I take a plea agreement despite the fact that they had no evidence against me. I refused to do it but again I was undressed, pressed me to the floor, and this time they took a soldering iron and pressed it to my body. They described what would happen when the hot iron pierced me. It had the intended effect; I believed them after what they did with the gas mask.
After the days of torture that I’ve just described, I was taken to Lefortovo Prison in Moscow where I stayed for 18 months. The guards who tortured me were based there. Then, during the trial of Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko which took place in Rostov-on-Don, I rescinded my former testimony. It was the first time that I had seen anybody other than FSB officers, and I was able to start telling people about the treatment I had received and the pressure I had been under to sign incriminating documents. I explained how they coerced me into implicating people I didn’t even know, like Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko. Independent lawyers and human rights activists came to me in prison and I managed to tell them about all these traumas. Now all these cases are being heard in the European Court.
FSB officers had me transferred to a modern gulag in the Komi Republic near to Vorkuta. The transfer was really hard because the temperature in the railway cars reached a scorching 40-45C. There was no toilet or water, and there were 10-15 people in one room. We stayed in the sun for 10 hours, it was horrible. Later they transferred me to another gulag in the Komi Republic. I caught several illnesses there, and my body was covered in welts but they would not allow me access toa doctor. I made a lot of problems for them so they transferred me to the women’s colony near Vorkuta where I spent 3 months in solitary confinement. I didn’t see anyone other than prison administrators.
Finally they took me to Moscow to Lefortovo again. I was in very bad health. Before sanctions against Russia were prolonged, they exchanged me and another prisoner – a 74 year old man with cancer (Yuri Soloshenko) – as they were frightened we would die. They swapped us for Ukrainians who were FSB agents in Odessa.
We are alive only because the EU, US and Canada brought attention to our cases. The Russian Federation was more reluctant to harm us because everyone would find out. Over these three years the coverage has decreased. Our silence benefits Russia. If we keep silent, if we don’t talk about the problems in Crimea or political prisoners, this is to their benefit. We are now in a beautiful country with our friends and family, but somebody is in Siberia who is not a terrorist, but 10 or 20 years of their life will be spent in Siberian winters where temperatures go down to 40-45C.
Thank you that you invited me here. Your attention saved my life.
Gennadii Afanasiev was released on 14 June 2016 in a prisoner exchange, 767 days after his abduction.