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BY STANISLAV ASEEV

Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Colonia Dignidad in Chile, Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba—all these places have long been symbols of human rights violations connected with torture. Around the world, the unlimited wielding of power by one person over another in a constrained space raises questions not just about basic human rights but also about the very essence of human nature.

Regrettably, another present-day concentration camp set up by pro-Russian separatists in the east of Ukraine, in the city of Donetsk, is no exception in this respect. I know it well from my personal experience: I was a prisoner in Izolyatsiya for over two years.

Izolyatsiya (Isolation) is the name of a secret prison run by the so-called State Security Ministry (SSM) of the unrecognized, self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR). It is there that a great number of war crimes against people in custody are being perpetrated. I spent two and a half years in this prison after being captured as a result of my journalist work on the separatist-controlled territory. While there, I witnessed tortures and dehumanization by SSM staff, and was on the receiving end of these crimes against humanity.

For the duration of the war in Ukraine’s East, beginning in the summer of 2014, Russian-controlled militants in Isolation have pursued an elaborate system of torture, prisoner rapes (of both women and men), routinized humiliation, forced labor, and even murder. It is especially cynical that the secret prison was set up in the buildings of the nonprofit Izolyatsiya art foundation and center, which was itself located on the site of a former insulating materials plant. Before the war, the center housed galleries with paintings and presented European-level exhibitions and installation art.

After Donetsk was occupied by Russian-backed separatist forces, the former plant's site was transformed into a military base, with the administrative buildings converted into cells for prisoners. However, the specific horror of imprisonment in Isolation is not that the plant’s accounting office became one of the prison cells where people have to sleep on racks meant for storing paper. Decades earlier, in the Soviet era, an elaborate system of bomb shelters had been constructed on the site. The separatists turned those shelters into underground cells (the “cellars”) and torture chambers for prisoners.

In Isolation, prisoners are kept with no regard for the norms of a legal penitentiary system. There are no visits from family or lawyers; you cannot bring food or personal items that people need while in custody. There is complete informational blackout from the outside world. They also do not divide prisoners into groups by political leaning. In 2014–2015 the secret prison was used by the militants first as a place into which their own accomplices-in-arms “disappeared,” the so-called “Cossacks” who fought on the side of the DPR. With the spread of the reprisal machine to the population that held different political views, the cells of Isolation began to fill not only with militiamen but also with people who held pro-Ukrainian views. Three of the eight cells of Isolation were designated for women, who are separated from male prisoners by a wall or confined in those same cellar rooms.

So, by October 2019 (based on the accounts of the prisoners released in December 2019), it was known that Isolation had five men's cells and three cells for women, one narrow room without ventilation, a punishment cell, and three rooms in the cellar. Among the latter there is a cell for 20 people, a cell for one person, and the so-called “drinking glass,” the underground punishment cell where you cannot even sit because of the confined space but can only stand, which is the reason for its name. The total number of prisoners held in Isolation may amount to 80 at any one time.

As for the system of torture, the most frequent method of pressuring people in Isolation to admit to anything is the application of electric current, used for torturing 95 percent of all people who wind up there. Over the 28 months that I spent in Isolation, I can name three to five people at most, out of several dozens, who were lucky enough to experience “simple” beatings, while the great majority of prisoners, including women, were tortured with the so-called TAPIK, the field telephone, which has wires. Those wires are connected to different parts of the human body, including the genitals and rectum, for electric torture.

The autumn of 2017 saw the frequent practice of new prisoners being tortured not in the cellar as usual but on the same floor with the other prisoners, in a neighboring room. In this case, the prison’s administration forced the prisoners of the first three cells to sing Soviet songs dating back to World War II, allegedly so that the other prisoners would not hear the cries of pain from those being tortured.

A UNHCR report provides additional evidence of beating, suffocation (by both wet and dry methods), sexual violence, torture by position, the extraction of body parts (fingernails and teeth), deprivation of water, food, sleep, and access to toilet facilities, simulated execution, threats of violence or death, and threats to harm the families of the prisoners in Isolation.

Despite these known, flagrant violations of the norms of captivity and physical and psychological torture, over the six and a half years of this modern-day concentration camp’s existence not a single human rights mission or organization has had access to the prisoners or the grounds of Isolation, including the separatists’ own so-called ombudsman. Isolation continues as a center of war crimes and the violation of human rights in present-day Europe.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

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Stanislav Aseev

Independent Journalist
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange.  Read more