Serhiy Litvinov was a 32-year-old cowherd with no interest in politics when he left his home village of Komyshne in a separatist-controlled part of Ukraine’s Luhansk region, on the border with Russia, to seek treatment for a gum infection in August 2014.
From Komyshne, Litvinov crossed the border on foot and went to the Tarasovsky hospital in Russia’s Rostov region, where he ran into the trouble that has blighted his life ever since.
The disturbing experiences that Litvinov endured in the years that followed his ill-fated attempt to get medical treatment highlight some of the issues faced by Ukrainians who are imprisoned in Russia, and how their problems can continue even after they are returned to their home country.
While he was at the Tarasovsky hospital, Litvinov met some separatist fighters from the self-proclaimed, Russian-backed Luhansk People’s Republic, who were being treated there for combat wounds.
“There were three militants there who started asking me about the war. I said, ‘I don’t know anything about the war,” Litvinov recalled.
“I said that I don’t do politics, I don’t need it. They offered me a drink, said ‘Let’s drink’.”
Litvinov agreed to drink with the separatist fighters, but they decided that the cowherd seemed suspicious, and reported him.
A group of men in black then seized him from the hospital, took him away in a car and abused him.
“They tortured me with a blowtorch, they beat me, they opened fire between my legs. They tore off my Orthodox cross, took my mobile phone, broke my glasses,” he said.
His tormentors claimed he was a member of the Dnipro-1 regiment, a special forces unit that was controlled by the Ukrainian Interior Ministry and reportedly funded by the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who was governor of the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast during the conflict in 2014.
Litvinov was accused of killing 39 civilians in Ukraine’s Luhansk region and raping eight females, including a 12-year-old girl.
“They attached an explosive, asked if I had fought in this Dnipro battalion, I said that I had never fought, I am a peaceful citizen… They then tormented me some more and brought me back to the hospital,” he said.
Russian law enforcement officers then took him away from the hospital and detained him.
Back at home, his brother Volodymyr Litvinov was confused when he found out what had happened.
“I come home and my mother tells me Serhiy is in jail,” he said. “I don’t know for what, I know that he went to the hospital and that’s it, he had a toothache.”
Russia currently holds about 100 Ukrainians who are considered by the Kyiv authorities to be political prisoners; Crimean Tatar human rights activist Emir-Hussein Kuku and Ukrainian activists Valentyn Vygovsky and Glib Schabliy are among them.
Russian investigative bodies have been accused of fabricating evidence in such cases, upon which Russian courts then base false judgments.
Litvinov was tried for murder and rape as a Ukrainian fighter from the Dnipro-1 regiment.
“This man – he is a vigilante,” Dmitry Kiselev, a well-known pro-Kremlin TV host, said of Litvinov on his weekly show on Russian state broadcaster Rossiya 1. Kiselev alleged that Litvinov joined the Dnipro-1 regiment for money and “was trained to cleanse the villages that had been captured by Ukrainian militants, with the use of torture and killing”.
Litvinov’s family mocked the charges.
“He didn’t kill anyone, we don’t even know about such things as guns and pistols. We know about shovels, garden forks, hammers and all that,” said his brother Volodymyr.
“Of course, this was all made up, he never left the village. All he knows is a hoe for digging and a shovel. If you took him to Luhansk, he wouldn’t find his way around,” said his wife Olena.
But Litvinov’s lawyer Viktor Parshutkin then found out that the victims of the alleged crime did not actually exist, and neither did the streets on which they were said to have lived.
The charges were dropped, and in 2015, the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation, the country’s main federal investigating authority, apologized for the false accusations.
But Litvinov was not released by the Russian authorities – instead, he was charged with theft.
‘I don’t know what I’m doing here’
In April 2016, Tarasovsky District Court sentenced Litvinov to eight-and-a-half years in prison for stealing two cars, along with other Ukrainian servicemen.
It was alleged that he stole the cars from a man called Oleksandr Lysenko during fighting in the village of Kolesnykivka in the Luhansk region in 2014.
But Litvinov insisted that he had never been to Kolesnykivka and only saw Lysenko for the first time at the pre-trial detention center in Rostov: “Other than that, I’ve never seen him in my life,” Litvinov said.
“I don’t know how to drive a car, I don’t have a license, except for a motorcycle license,” he added.
The defense alleged that Lysenko had seen the ‘Ukrainian vigilante’ Litvinov on television and decided to blame him for the theft of his cars – but despite this, he was convicted and sent to jail.
In Russia and annexed Crimea, over 100 Ukrainians are imprisoned for crimes which Ukraine, as a state, considers to be fictitious, in cases it believes are politically motivated. One of them was the case against Litvinov.
Nevertheless, a Ukrainian court recognized the Russian court’s decision, and after spending five years in Russian jails, Litvinov was sent – under a Council of Europe convention that allows prisoner transfers – to serve the rest of his time in a Ukrainian prison in the Kharkiv area.
While he was in jail in Magadan in Russia, he had received many letters of support – even from then-Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin and from staff at the Ukrainian Ministry of Justice. But while he was in prison in Kharkiv, everyone appeared to have forgotten about him, and there he stayed, seemingly without hope of early release.
There is no mechanism for the release of Ukrainians in Ukraine if they have been repatriated from Russia as ordinary criminals to serve out the rest of their sentences, as Litvinov was.
Maria Tomak, the coordinator of the Media Initiative for Human Rights NGO, explained that if Litvinov was released – for whatever reason – Russia could blame Ukraine for violating the Council of Europe convention under which he was brought to Ukraine, and stop sending Ukrainians convicted in Russia home to serve their sentences.
This could affect other, non-political prisoners in Russia, Tomak said, explaining that there are hundreds of Ukrainian citizens in jail in Russia who want to be transferred to their home country under the Council of Europe convention.
The only way for Litvinov to get out of prison in Kharkiv, his lawyer Roman Likhachev said, was to admit the crime and ask the Ukrainian president for a pardon.
“Although we understand that by asking for pardon we are actually admitting that Litvinov is guilty and that he allegedly repents before the Ukrainian people, that he committed a crime – this is absurd, of course. However, there was no other way to free this person,” Likhachev explained at the time.
Hromadske discovered that Litvinov was in the Kharkiv prison colony and went to record an interview with him. Asked what he was doing in a Ukrainian jail, he responded: “I don’t know myself what I’m doing here.”
Left with no other option, Litvinov made a personal plea to the Ukrainian president for a pardon: “I have two children, Zhenya and Inna. And a good wife Olena. And a mother, a pensioner, with many children. She’s old, I haven’t seen her for five years, haven’t seen her gray hair,” he wrote.
“I want to see my family, that’s what interests me the most.”
‘I don’t know where the money went’
On July 13, three weeks after the Hromadske interview and four months after he was transferred from Russia, Litvinov was finally released after receiving a presidential pardon.
However, Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice criticized the interview that was broadcast by Hromadske, saying it was detrimental to the process of bringing back other Ukrainians jailed in Russia.
From 2014 to mid-2019, Russia handed over 444 Ukrainian citizens to serve their sentences in their home country. The numbers were increasing – from 39 in 2014 to 116 in 2018, and 145 in the first half of 2019.
The ministry claimed that “the hype around Litvinov” could hurt both him and other “captives of the Kremlin”. Hromadske argued however that the story was in the public interest.
As he left the prison colony, Litvinov was jubilant: “I want to hug my mum, who I haven’t seen in five years, to work, to live, to clothe my children and live with my beautiful wife, who has been waiting for me for five years,” he said.
“Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the [Ukrainian] heroes!” he exclaimed.
But although he was now free, Litvinov’s troubles were not over yet.
A month after his release, he found out that his family, as relatives of a political prisoner, had been supposed to receive a one-off compensation payment of nearly $4,000 from the state the previous year.
The money was transferred to his mother because he is not officially married to his wife – but Litvinov said it was not passed on to him or his spouse. Instead, his mother and brothers took it and spent it on a motorcycle, he claimed.
“This money has not been transferred to me. It was stolen by my own mother,” he claimed. “I do not consider her my mother, she told me ‘you are not my son, I am not your mother’. I am asking for this woman to be punished in accordance with Ukrainian law.”
Left without compensation and still suffering the consequences of the injuries he sustained when he was tortured, Litvinov said that he now intends to take his mother, Liubov Litvinova, to court.
She insisted that the allegations were false: “I don’t know where the money went. What, how – I don’t know,” she said.
But she did know, more than five years after her son left the village to seek medical treatment and ended up in prison in Russia, that she was not pleased to see him again.
“I’m not happy that he’s back,” she said. “I’m not happy.”
/By Nastya Stanko and Oleksandr Kokhan, Kyiv
The story was produced as part of a transitional justice project jointly with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN).