The horror of Russian prisons in Crimea: “They turned us into cornered animals” | International

In the middle of the night at the end of March 2022, guards at the Simferopol Pretrial Detention Center No. 1 in Russian-occupied Ukraine wake up Alexander Tarasov and Sergei Tsigipa, two activists accused of organizing protests against the invasion of Ukraine in the Kherson region. “Does anyone speak Spanish?” they ask. Neither of them knows the language, but Tsigipa does know some Portuguese. They ask him to help calm down a prisoner recently brought from Kherson. He is Mariano García Calatayud, a 75-year-old retiree from Carlet (Valencia) who has lived in Ukraine since 2014. According to his fellow captives, the Spaniard was in shock. He did not understand the screams of the jailers. “He looked like a hunted animal,” they say. And they recount the nightmare of torture to which he was allegedly subjected. He received electric shocks because he didn’t understand the orders he was given until he learned to follow the most basic ones. The jailers confiscated his medication for his heart condition, according to the lawyer defending him. “I have given the Spanish a couple of slaps, I have taught him the Russian language,” one of his guards once said, according to Ukrainian activists. The Spanish Foreign Ministry assures that he is in contact with his family.

García Calatayud is one of the thousands of Ukrainian civilians and other nationalities who have been detained by Moscow’s special forces since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Volunteers, journalists, ex-servicemen and civil servants have been taken out of the occupied territories and many of them remain secluded in Russian penal colonies and pre-trial detention centers. They do not have prisoner of war status; Their lawyers and relatives are not allowed to enter and, in most cases, it is impossible to contact them. Even those who managed to get out of prison sometimes don’t know why they were detained or why they were released. In the Simferopol detention centers alone, in Russia-annexed Crimea, there are more than 100 civilians being held who receive systematic ill-treatment. Beatings, electric shocks, strangulation or harassment with dogs are some of the torments inflicted, according to an investigation by the independent Russian media jellyfish, based in Latvia, based on the testimonies of some of the released prisoners.

Calatayud, who does not speak Russian or Ukrainian, celebrated his 75th birthday at Simferopol’s No. 2 Pretrial Detention Center. “He constantly called the doctor in Spanish,” recalls the inmate Tarásov, who was in the next cell. “Sometimes the doctor only came after a week,” he adds. Throughout his captivity, he learned a few Russian words, but gave thanks in Spanish for the occasional shower. “Perfect, Mr. Commander!” He said after being able to clean up the guards. No interpreter attended his interrogations. Neither in the detention center where he was held, nor in the local department of the FSB, the Russian secret service, where they were sometimes taken to take their statements. “When they took us to the building, an FSB officer said at the door: ‘Mario! [como se conoce en Ucrania a Mariano] he’s a fascist!’ “In the detention center they beat him,” recalls his fellow prisoner, Yevgeny Yamkovói. “I saw scars from a machine on him and once a dog caught his leg. When he gushed blood from him he hit his head with his fist, ”he adds.

Tatiana Marina, 39, lives in Kherson and is the wife of García Calatayud. She recounts that, before her arrest, her husband was very combative with the Russian security forces. “Even in the Kherson temporary detention center, when he had just been arrested for the protests, he would not stop shouting ‘glory to Ukraine!’” she explains. “Mario’s guards were stunned.” The wife of the Spanish prisoner says that he moved to Ukraine in 2014 to deliver humanitarian aid to orphanages near the front line in Donbas. “I could not with that injustice. He had worked in the Valencia City Council, but he had already retired and wanted to come to help fix the situation”. She now wonders how he survives in such a place. “He is a great lover of freedom, how can he who loves to breathe deeply be in a cage?”, She asks herself.

García Calatayud is not the only foreigner who has been detained in the Simferópol preventive detention center. In early November 2022, French citizen Andreas Blazejak left a city near Kherson for Crimea with the intention of joining his Ukrainian wife in Germany, where he had fled after the invasion. But at a checkpoint in the city of Armiansk, already on the peninsula annexed by Russia, he was detained by FSB officers, he tells jellyfish lawyer Anatoli Fursov. He spent 68 days in the Russian facility. Belarusian Ales Malyarchuk, who migrated to Ukraine to work, also spent several months held by Russian jailers in Simferopol. He was taken to the penal colony with a bag over his head. “They told me that he was a spy and that he had to sign a confession… I refused. Then they began to beat me severely and give me electric shocks”, he recounted in a videoconference. “They broke my teeth.”

Mariano García Calatayud, in an image provided by À Punt.

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Victory Day

Morning of May 9, 2022. Victory Day, a Russian national holiday commemorating the defeat of Nazi Germany by the USSR. The prisoner of the Russian Pretrial Detention Center No. 1, the activist Alexander Tarasov, hears behind the cell door the shouts of the special members of the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service: “Line up! Heads down, get out! Running, I said!” The five inmates lower their heads in a memorized movement and hide their hands behind their backs. From then on, Tarasov sees only the ground, his own legs, and the boots of the special forces. Leaning down, in that posture, he leaves the cell and stands facing the wall. “More arched! Legs wider apart, I already told you!” one of his jailers yells as he hits the activist on the calves until the inmate is practically lying down with his legs apart.

Leaning his forehead against the wall and thinking only about the torn ligaments, Tarasov listens to the new questions from the members of that special corps: “What holiday is today? What holiday is today? Did your grandfather fight? Reply!”. No matter what the answer, each of the cellmates is shocked with a stun gun: “You fascists have grandparents turning in their graves.” Hours later, new control in the dungeon. The guards appear again with the Tasers. One of them holds a dog that runs towards the prisoners until he pulls on the chain, Tarasov recalls. The officials this time maintain that his cellmate is a member of the far-right Ukrainian group Pravy Sektor. “They beat him by surprise and demanded that he sing the Soviet Victory Day song,” recalls Tarasov. Knee to the stomach. “Let’s sing!”. Tarasov remembers how he began the anthem in a brittle, trembling voice; a voice that didn’t sound like her own. Until he got confused with the lyrics and got an electric shock.

After his arrest, Tarasov was tortured. They attached electrodes to his earlobes and shocked him further while demanding the names of the other organizers of the anti-Russian demonstrations in Kherson. “The FSB officer came to put a gun to my temple and said: ‘It seems that you are screwing me.’ And he cocked the gun,” he recalls. “It was not clear if he would pull the trigger or not.” They demanded that she record a video message with his confession. “I was forced to say that the protests were organized by the Security Service of Ukraine with the aim of causing the bloodshed of the Russian military and discrediting them in the international community,” he continues. “They threatened to do the same to my mother and my son.” “They turned us into cornered animals,” he adds

Re-educate detainees

According to the sources of jellyfish, the resistance of the Ukrainians to the Russian invasion left the employees of the center very surprised, so they tried to re-educate the detainees. For example, they were lied to by assuring that Kremlin troops had occupied Odessa and Poltava, cities that were never under Moscow’s control. In September 2022, after the Russian accession referendum held in Kherson and other territories occupied by the authorities loyal to Moscow, the director of the facility began the morning check by saying: “Congratulations! You are now citizens of the Russian Federation.” Some of the inmates were offered citizenship, according to former Russian prisoner and lawyer Alexei Ladin, who represents the interests of several of his former colleagues. “They were forced to learn the anthem and the oath,” says the lawyer.

In October 2022, all Ukrainian detainees were transferred from the No. 1 Pretrial Detention Center to the newly opened No. 2, located in Simferopol itself. Three ex-prisoners told jellyfish that there was such a rush to open the new premises that, when the transfer took place, the works had not been completed. Russian authorities painted the windows to keep out natural light, according to Tarasov. The new facility had artificial light 24 hours a day, while internal regulations and the Russian anthem were periodically heard over the public address system. Prisoners are prohibited from sitting or lying on their bunks from six in the morning until lights out. Lawyers are prohibited from accessing the interns and only get some information about their clients from those who manage to get out.

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