POPASNA, Ukraine – Back in December 2014, Serhiy Shulakov was busy fixing cars in his company’s auto-service yard in the eastern Ukrainian town of Popasna when he saw a hand reaching over the fence.
The hand that was trying to unlock the gate belonged to a member of the Ukrainian Security Service, the SBU.
“I open up, and it’s SBU operatives,” Shulakov recalled. “The usual stuff - first thing, they take me down hard, I had to lie face-down in the snow for a bit. But nothing too bad. They search the service yard, find nothing. Then they go to my home and find ammunition, which I have a permit for. At the time, I was certain it would all be resolved and all would be well.”
But the SBU then accused the 42-year-old businessman from Popasna, which lies on the frontline between government-controlled and separatist-held areas in Ukraine’s Luhansk region, of aiding the Russian backed separatists by helping them train their fire on their targets during an artillery strike on his hometown.
The accusations against Shulakov were based on a phone conversation he had with an acquaintance who had joined the separatist militia of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic.
“Their conversation was roughly as follows: ‘Serhiy, we’re shelling Popasna today, are you willing to spot [guide artillery fire] for us?’ Shulakov’s reply was yes, that he’d do it. This conversation was recorded,” explained Shulakov’s lawyer Artur Simeyko.
“Then another conversation was recorded with an ‘unidentified man’ - Shulakov calls and says good afternoon, I need to see you, immediately,” Simeyko added.
Shulakov spent almost a month in a remand centre, unable to contact his relatives or a lawyer. Even though he hadn’t been convicted of anything, the SBU then delivered him to the authorities in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic as part of a prisoner exchange.
It took him five days to get back to his hometown, and six months later, he finally managed to prove his innocence in court. The unidentified man who Shulakov spoke to following his conversation with the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic militiaman turned out to be the local chief of police in Popasna, who Shulakov informed about the impending artillery attack.
“The police chief wasn’t questioned until much later. It was he who proved that Shulakov was to be thanked for the tip about where and when the shelling of Popasna would begin that day, enabling the Ukrainian Army to neutralise the Luhansk People’s Republic’s firing positions,” said Simeyko.
Shulakov said that on the day of the attack, “an entire neighborhood came under fire, densely built five-storey buildings”. However, because of the advance warning, people were hiding in basements or bomb shelters, and no one was killed.
Over 30 witnesses at the trial testified in Shulakov’s favor. The prosecutor’s office is currently challenging his acquittal, however.
“Of course, I still want to fight [the case] since I know that the truth is behind me. But most likely they are trying to wear me down because the government is not used to losing. Especially when it comes to article 258-1 [in the Ukrainian criminal code, which covers acts of terrorism],” Shulakov said.
‘Falsely accused on spurious charges’
Shulakov’s story is not unique. In the first few years of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, hundreds of people were detained - partly so they could be offered in exchange for prisoners of war held by the separatists, it has been claimed.
Krasimir Jankov, a researcher at the human rights organisation Amnesty International, said that some of the detainees may have taken part in or supported the so-called ‘independence referendums’ held by the separatists in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions in May 2014, or participated in the destabilisation that preceded them.
Jankov said that the Ukrainian authorities started the arrests in December 2014.
“Men in masks armed with machine guns searched their houses… The people were subsequently thrown into a minibus, blindfolded, and taken to some basement where an often excessive interrogation would take place,” he said.
“After that, they would memorise a statement and read it on camera, namely that they were informants for the so-called Donetsk ‘people’s republic’, or that they directed artillery fire or something,” he added.
The detainees were mostly brought to the SBU building in the north-eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
“They knew they were needed for a prisoner exchange from the start, they were told that,” said Jankov.
Lawyer Hennadiy Svystun also suggested that the authorities intended to swap the people they arrested for detainees held by the separatists.
“In my view, most of the people up for exchange from the Ukrainian side were falsely accused on these spurious charges in order to meet the numbers demanded for Ukrainian prisoners of war,” said Svystun, who represented Serhiy Shulakov and others.
People who collaborated with and gave information to the SBU in Popasna argued that the separatists were actually responsible for this because they would demand five hostages for every captured Ukrainian soldier.
“Both sides were aware that the other side had their men. There was no definite understanding how many people each side had. So both sides were simply stockpiling captives for future exchange. Or to have enough to offer in exchange for someone actually valuable,” suggested Jankov.
Human rights advocates estimate that over 1,000 people have been through this so-called ‘exchange pool’ so far.
Denys Kobzin, a former researcher at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that from 2014 to 2016, the numbers might have ranged from several hundred to several thousand people.
“Because by 2016, several thousand had already been exchanged. And these are only the ones accounted for, the ones we know of. And there were under-the-table exchanges as well,” said Kobzin.
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Not all of the detainees wanted to be exchanged and sent to separatist-controlled territory, however. During the penultimate large-scale exchange on December 27, 2017, a total of 15 people on the list refused to go.
“I refuse to be exchanged. Because my home, my country, the people close to me and my friends are all here,” one prisoner said in television footage of the handover.
“I wouldn’t advise anyone to go there. There’s nothing good over there,” he added.
Meanwhile some of the detainees were held by the SBU for over a year because the separatists did not want them.
These detainees were eventually freed following an international scandal, which erupted after a mission from the UN Committee Against Torture was barred from entering a number of SBU buildings that were reportedly holding illegal detainees. In protest, the UN committee’s mission suspended its work in Ukraine and issued a statement condemning the Kyiv government.
The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights said that by holding back prisoners for future exchanges, the Ukrainian government violated their rights.
On top of that, if a prisoner was exchanged who was actually guilty, the victims were essentially deprived of any hope of seeing them brought to justice because they were no longer on territory that was under Kyiv’s judicial control.
Security service’s alleged ‘secret jails’
The SBU was then accused of setting up its own clandestine detention centres to hold the prisoners.
“All those legally detained by SBU operatives were to be sent to remand prisons. However, this was at a tricky time when the SBU had their doubts concerning the loyalty of pre-trial detention centre staff... and to preserve the secrecy of these operations, they came up with this solution - holding the detainees in their own detention centres,” said Kobzin.
The SBU denied running any secret prisons, however.
Valeriya Lutkovska, who was the Ukrainian Ombudsperson from April 2012 to March 2018, argued that the state committed crimes against the detainees.
“In perpetrating these violations, the state had in mind the additional aim of freeing others,” Lutkovska said.
“Can such crimes be forgiven? I don’t know, but probably not. And it may turn out that we will have to answer for them, say, in the European Court of Human Rights,” she added.
Lutkovska noted that the issue was legally complex and ambiguous - and that it remains unresolved. The Minsk agreements, signed by Ukraine and Russia in an attempt to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine, say that the “release and exchange of all hostages and unlawfully detained persons” should be ensured.
But this procedure has not been regulated under Ukrainian legislation. According to experts, this opens the Ukrainian government up to accusations of kidnapping and delivering the hostages into the hands of illegal military groups.
“It’s 2019, and yet we still don’t have laws regulating such exchanges or places to legally hold such detainees. And any escalation in the east may once again lead to the same violations,” said Kobzin.
As for Serhiy Shulakov, who was detained by the Ukrainian security service back in December 2014 and then traded in a prisoner exchange, he has encountered a series of problems since his release by the separatists.
Crossing the checkpoints between Ukrainian-controlled and separatist-run territory near Popasna has become difficult, and he has often been stopped and subjected to lengthy checks.
“They [Ukrainian soldiers] took shots at me a couple of times, a bullet whizzed past my ear. A couple of times they had me handcuffed out in the freezing cold with a bag over my head for two or three hours straight,” he said.
He has received threats from the separatist side as well.
“They’d write text messages saying I’m a junta accomplice and so on. Social media, too. They’d send me my house’s coordinates, and write that ‘we’ll mortar the place, you’ve got two little ones there, we’ll take good care of you, here’s our regards’,” he said.
Shulakov believes that speaking publicly about his story could make matters worse, but he said he wanted to do it because he believes in justice - and not just for himself.
“It’s hard, but that’s OK,” he said. “I’ve dug in, bit the bullet. What else could I do?”
/By Konstantin Reutski
The story was produced as part of a transitional justice project jointly with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN).