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Rights Defender Went to Occupied Donbas on a Humanitarian Mission, Ended Up Spending 489 Days in Jail
19 March, 2020
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“They didn’t ask me any questions about replacement therapy. The investigator understood that I didn’t pose a threat to their "government." He told me that if I had cancer and received medicine – that’s one thing. But replacement therapy in their “republic” wasn’t recognized. For them – this was just distributing narcotics, which is investigated as a criminal matter.”

Human rights defender and former addict Andriy Yarovyi was imprisoned by the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic” for 489 days. He visited non-government controlled territory to monitor the access that addicts have to replacement therapy programs – which had started to close from the very start of the occupation. But he himself ended up without access to treatment and medicine. Hromadske tells his story.

He Who Hasn’t Died, Sits in Prison

A tall man with a slight hunch, wearing a red jacket, walks up the staircase from the metro and looks at everything with an ingenuous smile. He lights an e-cigarette and heads to work, where he hasn’t been for 16 months. Straight down the street, cross it, turn left, then right. “As if I was here yesterday, nothing has changed.”

In the office, the man is met by his colleagues. They shake his hand and look into his eyes longer than typically done, and hug him tightly.

“I wasn’t here that often. I always worked in the field, because in the office I would have just  died,” says Andriy.

Human rights defender Andriy Yarovyi (right) in the office of the “Alliance of Public Health”, where he was, the last time, 16 months ago, prior to his imprisonment, and worked as a consultant. Kyiv, Ukraine. February 17, 2020. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

Colleagues are happy to see Andriy once again at work in the office of the “Alliance of Public Health”, Kyiv, Ukraine. February 17, 2020. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

He was freed from prison 2.5 months ago. He was imprisoned while on a humanitarian mission to non-government controlled territory in August 2018. At the time, Andriy was detained with 38 pills of a medical narcotic preparation, used in replacement therapy, called buprenorphine hydrochloride. He took the pills with him on that trip. 

“I’ve been on replacement therapy since 2009. Before that, I’d tried treatment of opioid addiction in rehab centers many times, but it never gave me any results, and I still returned to heroin.”

Andriy started taking drugs in the 1990s, when he worked as a sailor. On a trip in Antwerp, he tried heroin.

“I thought that I was so smart, strong-willed, I still had such plans for my life! And then, when it was too late, I understood that one needs enough willpower and smartness not try narcotics in the first place.”

In August 2018, Andriy Yarovyi was on a humanitarian mission to non-government controlled territory in the Donbas. Fighters wearing the colors of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic detained Andriy with replacement therapy pills, threw him in a cellar, and later sentenced him to 10.5 years' imprisonment.

Over a decade passed between his first and last time using. The replacement therapy program played a key role, after which Andriy finished another university, and started to work as a consultant for the “Alliance for Public Health”, became a member of the “Volna” Eurasian network for drug addicts, and went to a social-therapy center every day, where he would take his pills. With time, he started to receive pills for a longer period of time.

From 2015, Andriy began to visit non-government controlled territory in the Donbas on humanitarian missions.

“The contact line is crossed from both sides by dozens and hundreds of people. And if there’s a disease situation there, then if an epidemic strikes, the situation will get worse here.”

There, he spoke with former addicts who didn’t have access to replacement therapy. over the course of three to four days, he monitored the HIV/AIDS situation, tuberculosis and other socially important diseases.

“Addicts aren’t considered people in the occupied territories. They don’t have rights or the ability to receive treatment. In Luhansk and Donetsk, the drug policy is such that for the fact of taking [drugs], you can receive a year’s imprisonment. Their criminal code is 90% copied from the one in Russian Federation. There isn’t any replacement therapy there, not even talks of it – for them, this isn’t a form of treatment.”

Andriy spoke with former addicts on non-government controlled territory, who don’t have access to replacement therapy medicines, and monitored the spread of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other socially important diseases. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

During his first trip, Andriy managed to record an interview with former addicts, whose ability to receive replacement therapy kept dropping. They explained how they were pressured into quitting their jobs, how their health got worse, and how their acquaintances decided to cut them out of their life. This interview was part of a documentary entitled Donbas: To Live or To Die.

“The situation with those addicts who didn’t leave or Ukraine and remained there is very bad. The ones that haven’t died are in prison.”

They Were Scared I Could Die

After Andriy was found with the buprenorphine pills by the “LPR” at the checkpoint in the Krasnodonsk district, he managed to write a letter to the “Alliance for Public Health” and call his mother. 

The next day, the human rights defender was taken to the so-called “Ministry of State Security” of the “LPR”, and he was thrown into their cellar. There, Andriy had no contact with either his relatives or colleagues, or his lawyer.

At the same time, Andriy’s mother wrote a statement about her son’s illegal detention to the police. A separate statement was also provided to Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) division called the United Center for Helping Free Prisoners.

“They interrogated me three times in that cellar. Two of them were especially difficult. They wrapped me to a door, taken off from its hinges, with saran wrap, put clamps on my ears, and rotated a box that looked like a satellite phone. It’s a horrible thing, it provides a shock of up to 1,000 volts. But the strength of the shock itself is very small. It doesn’t kill a person, but the suffering is immense. As if you’re staring into a strobe light at a nightclub. You can’t shut yourself off. The shocks constantly keep you awake. The ones interrogating you scream right into your ear: ‘Who’s your curator at the SBU? What was your assignment? What’s your SBU handle?’”

After his illegal detention in 2018, Andriy had no ties to his relatives or his colleagues, or even to a lawyer. Kyiv, Ukraine, February 14, 2020. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

His first interrogation lasted all night. After that, Andriy felt sick, and a doctor forbid further questioning. 

“After the interrogation, they tried to give me an injection, but it didn’t work. I explained that I had previously taken narcotics and I didn’t have any veins. Then they gave me an intramuscular injection. I heard the doctor describe that I had very high pressure, 210 over 160. And they could just not make it. They were scared that I would die.”

On his second interrogation, they “beat [him] up quite well.” And they still tried to find out whether he had any ties to British intelligence, seeing as his agency, the “Alliance for Public Health”, was based in the United Kingdom.

On his third interrogation, they ”charged” Andriy with pills, which means that he was charged with narcotic contraband. A document from a Kyiv hospital that said that this was medicine was ignored: “I never denied that these were my pills and my medicine.”

It’s true, however, that even from the first conversation with investigators, Andriy knew that he would be prepared for an exchange: “The investigator said that it was possible that prior to the New Year I’d go home. You know, they also needed to get their people back. It’s clear that they needed a bargaining chip, people to trade.”

 “They interrogated me three times in that cellar. Two of them were especially difficult. They wrapped me to a door, taken off from its hinges, with saran wrap, put clamps on my ears, and rotated a box that looked like a satellite phone. It’s a horrible thing, it provides a shock of up to 1,000 volts.” Kyiv, Ukraine, February 14, 2020. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

After that, the “Alliance for Public Health” was able to present Andriy with a lawyer, through whom he could pass small messages home.

“We understood that there could be no defense on non-government controlled territory. But our job was to create a contact with Andriy. The lawyer was our ‘dear postman.’ He passed along messages from Andriy and told us about his physical condition. It was important for us to receive all the documents regarding the criminal charges and suspicions,” said Pavlo Skala, an associate director of the “Alliance for Public Health”. At the beginning of February 2019, the human rights defender was transferred to the Luhansk penal colony, where he was held until his “trial.”

Simultaneously, the European Court of Human Rights, responding to Andriy’s mother’s request, quickly opened a case and put it into priority consideration.

Regardless of any clarifications about the publically known effectiveness of replacement therapy programs, Andriy was sentenced to 10.5 years' imprisonment for drug trafficking. Following his sentencing, he had just one request – to not tell his mother about the duration of his sentence.

In February 2019, the European Court of Human Rights, responding to Andriy’s mother’s request, quickly opened a case and put it into priority consideration. Kyiv, Ukraine, February 14, 2020. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

Have Faith and Carry On

In order to serve out his sentence, Andriy was transferred to a high-security prison near Sverdlovsk, in an occupied part of the Luhansk region. 

The conditions there were better than the previous month, but everyone lived in barracks of up to 70-80 people and it was coal-heated. The bathrooms were outside. Moving between barracks was banned, and there was no plumbing. 

In prison, Andriy worked as a night orderly in a separate quarantine and diagnostic zone for the distribution for new prisoners: “This was considered a good place, you won’t get it just like that. The warden has to like you, and you should constantly be getting packages. The rest of the prisoners worked in a factory, where they weren’t even paid enough to buy a pack of cigarettes.”

 Andriy went daily to a social-therapy center as part of his replacement therapy, where he would take his pills. With time, they began to give him medicine for longer periods of time. After his release, he decided to once again return to the replacement therapy program. Kyiv, Ukraine, February 14, 2020. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

The “Alliance for Public Health” had, for the entire period of his imprisonment, been trying to free him.

“We tried to make his case publicly known, we wrote to all our international partners. But we were also concerned about making it worse,” said Skala.

In late April, during the Harm Reduction International Conference, Andriy was awarded the Carol and Travis Jenkins Award as a “victim of insolent violations of human rights related to illegal imprisonment for having legally obtained medicine for replacement therapy.” The award, given in Portugal, was presented to his colleagues. They read a short speech that Andriy had previously dictated via telephone. “The most important thing is to have faith and carry on,” were the words said on stage. 

Andriy began using drugs in the 1990s, when he worked as a sailor. During a stopover in Antwerp, he tried heroin. Social-therapy center in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 14, 2020. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

“I’ve been on replacement therapy since 2009. Before that, I’d tried treatment in rehab centers for opioid addiction many times, but it never gave me any results, and I still returned to heroin.” Social-therapy center in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 14, 2020. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

Andriy learned about his transfer ten days prior to the New Year. “The morning of December 21, ‘police’ employees came to me and told me to get ready to go to a special transit to Luhansk. No one said why, but I figured that this was the case.”

They took Andriy’s copies of his sentence, which he’d had left over from the investigation and trial. The next day he was already in Luhansk, and in a week – in Kyiv. He was met at the airport by his younger brother and his mother, and only then did his mother learn about the length of his sentence.

“Now, I go on a lot of walks, I watch people and the city, I am renewing all my documents. I’m getting used to the fact that I’m home again. I decided to re-enter the replacement therapy program, and so I feel markedly better. Soon, I’ll go back to work at ‘Alliance’.”

Andriy heads back into the metro. He hides his vaporizer in an inside pocket as he heads down the stairs, and on the way to his train he explains how he had to leave his cat, Marysia, in prison. “She was a beautiful, three-colored cat. They didn’t let me take her because this was an exchange. But I gave her away into good hands.”

Human rights defender and former addict Andriy Yarovyi spent 489 days in prison in the Russian puppet state of the “LPR”. Now he’s trying to acclimatize himself to home. Kyiv, Ukraine, February 17, 2020. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova / hromadske

/Translated by Romeo Kokriatski