Mother of two abducted from Melitopol, tortured and held prisoner in Moscow

How do you explain to children that the Russians who invaded your home are holding your mother prisoner and calling her a “terrorist”?
Halya Coynash25 July 2023UA DE EN ES FR IT RU

Яніна Акулова.Скріншот із відео ФСБ Yanina Akulova Screenshot from the FSB video Янина Акулова. Скриншот из видео ФСБ

Yanina Akulova Screenshot from the FSB video

Yanina Akulova’s 6-year-old daughter Zlata does not know why it has been many long months since she last saw her mother. Her sister Vika is already 14 and the family decided she had to know that her mother is imprisoned in Moscow where she was taken by the Russians who had invaded their native Melitopol and turned their lives upside down.

This, unfortunately, is only part of the story as Yanina was taken prisoner a full six weeks before she was brought before the Lefortovo district court in Moscow and officially remanded in custody. We know from the first brief call she was able to make to her sister that the FSB used at least part of that time to torture her into signing “some kind of documents”. As they have done with other Ukrainian political prisoners, they would have then waited until the bruises cleared before officially admitting that she was in their custody.

Melitopol in Zaporizhzhia oblast was one of the first cities that Russia invaded in 2022 and it remains under Russian occupation. Akulova and her family had remained in the city, probably counting on the Ukrainian Armed Forces to liberate them. Akulova’s sister, Kateryna Radchenko explained to the ZMINA Human Rights Centre that the situation changed after Russia staged a fake “referendum” in September 2022. Akulova was worried that the invaders would try to forcibly “mobilize” her husband, and insisted that he leave the city together with their children. She had planned to stay behind temporarily to try to find homes for their dogs, parrot and hens.

Although it only became clear that Akulova had disappeared on 12 October 2022, Kateryna now knows that her sister was seized the day before by the Russian military manning a checkpoint. She was brought to the family’s home at 2 a.m. that night, with the Russians carrying out a search, supposedly for explosives which they did not find. They have, apparently, returned several times since.

As has become standard, the occupation “authorities” denied any knowledge of Akulova’s whereabouts, and the Russian-installed “police” refused to register the family’s report that she was missing.

Over the following six weeks, the family would have lived through hell, knowing only that Yanina had been seized by the Russians who were claiming not to know where she was.

Антон Жуковський, Дмитро Сергєєв та Яніна Акулова. З відеозаписів, на яких чоловіки із затуманеними обличчями повторюють один і той же “текст”, якого майже напевно вимагають від них, і не називають своїх імен. Anton Zhukovsky, Dmytro Sergieiev and Yanina Akulova From the videos where the men, their faces obscured, repeat the same ’text’ almost certainly demanded of them and do not give their names. Антон Жуковский, Дмитрий Сергеев и Янина Акулова Из видеозаписей, на которых мужчины с затуманенными лицами повторяют один и тот же “текст”, почти наверняка требуемый от них, и не называют своих имён.

Anton Zhukovsky, Dmytro Sergieiev and Yanina Akulova From the videos where the men, their faces obscured, repeat the same “text” almost certainly demanded of them and do not give their names.

On 24 November, the Russian state-controlled TASS news agency, and television, claimed that the Russians in occupied Melitopol had uncovered a ‘terrorist gang’ headed by Yanina Akulova which was supposed to have been planning a terrorist attack on a market. It should be stressed that any partisan attacks have been aimed solely at military targets and at those collaborators installed by the invaders. That alone makes such allegations implausible. They are also, of course, immensely cynical, with the country which invaded the three Ukrainians’ home then abducting them, illegally transporting them to Moscow and charging them under Russian legislation for likely fictitious acts on Ukrainian territory. As well as Yanina Akulova, the reports claimed that two Ukrainian men had been “arrested”: Dmytro Sergieiev and Anton Zhukovsky. Yanina’s family have no idea who these two men are. Yet another typical aspect of this case is that the Russians are claiming that the men had committed a crime on government-controlled Ukrainian territory and had been effectively blackmailed by the Ukrainian enforcement bodies into trying to waive prosecution by committing a “terrorist attack” in Melitopol. Moscow has tried to claim near 100% support for “joining Russia”, and, while accusing them of ‘terrorism’, finds it more convenient to attribute mercenary or similar motives. It is noticeable, however, that on a video, almost certainly shared by the FSB, the two men’s faces are deliberately blurred, while Yanina Akulova’s face is not.

The Centre for Journalist Investigations earlier reported that Russia’s FSB are also claiming that the three Ukrainians blew up a car on 18 September 2022 in which Mikhail Shchetynin and Sergei Gorbunov, Russian nationals installed by the aggressor states as high-ranking officials in the occupation ‘administration were travelling.

The Russians sometimes, unfortunately, do catch those Ukrainian patriots taking part in partisan attacks on such legitimate targets. They also, however, often prop up their ‘statistics” on supposedly solving crimes by seizing people on the basis of nationality and / or pro-Ukrainian position. The methods used, especially the videoed ‘confessions’ extracted through torture make it immaterial to such FSB officers whether the person was in any way implicated.

The charges, brought by the invading state, are under Article 30 § 1 and 205.4 § 2 of Russia’s criminal code (conspiring to commit a terrorist act as part of an organized group), as well as Article 222 § 4 (illegal storage of weapons) and 222.1 § 4 (illegal storage of explosives). They face sentences from 12 to 20 years, with their ‘trial’ almost certainly taking place in the same Southern District Military Court in Rostov that has been involved in sentencing over 100 Crimean Tatar and other Ukrainian political prisoners to huge terms of imprisonment.

Russia is thus claiming that the three Ukrainians were only arrested on 24 November 2022, although at least Akulova is known to have been in Russian captivity since 11 October. The reason for such concealment is, unfortunately, clear. During the first of the four brief phone calls that Akulova has been able to make since the Russians admitted to holding her, she explained that she had been beaten for two days and forced to sign documents they put in front of her. They had then held her in some unknown place until the signs of torture faded, before taking her to Moscow.

During the following short calls, Yanina cried, asking about her daughters and saying how much she missed them and her family.

A lawyer has now been taken on to represent Yanina in court and also to get food and other necessities to her in the Lefortovo SIZO [remand prison] with money sent by the family. The conditions in any Russian penal institution are appalling, and the lawyer reports that Yanina has lost 15 kilos while in Russian captivity. Most worryingly, she suffers from asthma, and needs an inhalator. She has assured her family that she is given everything she needs, however her assurances that she is fine may be mainly aimed at comforting her family, especially her elderly mother. For a long time she was held in solitary confinement, however recently a 60-year-old woman from Zaporizhzhia oblast was placed in the cell with her.

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