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Former Ukraine prison detainees doubt Russia’s deadly blast story

Aug. 3, 2022 Updated Wed., Aug. 3, 2022 at 1:28 p.m.

By Mary Ilyushina Washington Post

Even before the deadly blast that killed at least 53 Ukrainian soldiers on Friday, the Olenivka prison in the country’s separatist-controlled eastern Donetsk province was known to human rights groups as a lawless place where pro-Russian forces hold civilians flagged as potential enemy “collaborators” and military prisoners of war.

Located just a few miles from the war’s front line, it has served as a detention facility for several thousand people brought from Mariupol after Russia captured that southern Ukrainian port city in May following a brutal and protracted siege. Among them were hundreds of soldiers who fought back from the city’s last stronghold, the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant, before finally surrendering.

In March, nearly three dozen humanitarian aid workers volunteering to rescue civilians from Mariupol ended up in Olenivka because Russian officers and separatist forces considered them suspect. They were freed barely two weeks ago, and their accounts of conditions and treatment inside the prison bolster Kyiv’s accusations that the Ukrainian fighters killed were deliberately moved to an abandoned warehouse there - a location that then was destroyed.

Moscow quickly alleged that the Ukrainian military had targeted its own, hitting the building with a U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) to prevent the soldiers from testifying about “crimes against humanity” committed by Ukrainian forces. To support this narrative, Russian state media later broadcast a video showing a charred structure with a large hole in its roof, crushed bunk beds and burned body parts.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky angrily denounced the Kremlin’s scenario, calling the attack on the prison a “deliberate Russian war crime.” The Ukrainian General Staff contended that Russia staged it “to cover up the torture and execution of prisoners.”

Three volunteer aid workers, who spent about 100 days in Olenivka, told The Washington Post that the building identified by Moscow as “a detention center” was located in a separate area of the complex that had not been used to hold prisoners.

“I can tell you definitively that the video doesn’t show the prison barracks, and [the demolished building is] not part of the living quarters,” said Evgeny Maliarchuk, who was arrested by Russians in Mariupol while trying to evacuate about 20 civilians in a bus he had bought and driven from Kyiv.

“We have been in every building, all of the barracks, the disciplinary isolator, regular detention facilities, solitary, all of it,” he recounted by phone.

According to Maliarchuk, the prison was shut down for about eight years and reopened by pro-Russian separatists shortly before the invasion. One section of Correctional Facility No. 120, as it is officially known, includes barracks and detention areas; the other is an industrial zone filled with aging equipment where convicts once worked.

“The building in the video looks like these workshops located directly in the industrial zone,” he added. “So if it was a planned action and prisoners were transferred from the barracks, the question arises: Why?”

Satellite imagery of the prison, reviewed by open-source intelligence analyst Oliver Alexander, supports this account.

Russian propaganda has taken particular aim at the Azovstal fighters - especially the Azov Regiment, considered one of Ukraine’s most effective units but controversial for its far-right links. It portrays both as living proof that Ukraine is overrun by “neo-Nazis” and requires Moscow’s “denazification.”

Mariupol’s fall and the soldiers’ capture were paraded as key wins on Russian TV. And at Olenivka, Russian flags went up and Russian guards and special services agents rolled in, surrounding the site with military trucks and howitzers.

In May, the Kremlin vowed that Azovstal fighters would be treated “in accordance with international standards” and said Russian President Vladimir Putin had guaranteed this. Yet reports from Ukrainian and Russian human rights groups say the captured soldiers have been severely beaten - and worse - by prison guards and military officers.

Two of the aid volunteers told The Post that they had heard “cries, awful sounds” while at Olenivka, where cells designed for a half-dozen people were sometimes packed with as many as 30. The group left the prison in mid-July after a grass-roots campaign by a European initiative won their release.

A man named Dmitry, whom The Post is identifying only by his first name because of concerns for the safety of relatives living under Russian occupation, said he spent weeks in a cage in the prison’s detention center and witnessed multiple “initiation rituals” of newly arrived Ukrainian soldiers.

The new prisoners were told to disrobe and kneel with their heads pressed against a wall as guards beat them with batons, according to Dmitry. Then they were forced to crawl upstairs before being pushed into their cells by a kick in the back, he said.

Last Friday’s attack apparently injured none of the Russian guards at the prison. An official for the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, the breakaway state within the region, said “only the prisoners suffered.”

In addition to the issues raised by the Russian state media’s video, Western officials and military analysts have questioned other inconsistencies in the Kremlin’s pronouncement. Most focused on the Kremlin’s mention of the HIMARS rocket system, which is normally reserved for long-range strikes from up to 50 miles away.

“The HIMARS claim can be swept aside immediately,” said Ruslan Leviev, an analyst with Conflict Intelligence Team, which has been tracking Russian military activities for nearly a decade. “Olenivka is located 10 kilometers from Novomykhailivka, the closest point from where, theoretically, Ukraine could strike. If your target is 10 kilometers away, why do you need HIMARS?”

The Security Service of Ukraine said it had intercepted calls in which “the occupiers confirm that Russian troops are to blame.” Experts caution that there is still little forensic evidence available to determine what exactly struck the building where the prisoners were.

Two unnamed U.S. officials told Politico that no traces of HIMARS were found at that site. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said in its update on Monday that it considers Russian forces to be responsible for the Ukrainian prisoners’ deaths. At least 75 prisoners were injured.

“If Ukraine had used something other than HIMARS to conduct the strike, the attack would almost certainly have left collateral damage around the facility, including craters and other damaged buildings,” the assessment said.

Zelensky’s government has called on the United Nations and the Red Cross to investigate the attack, but Russian has refused to grant them access.

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