PRYVILLYA, Ukraine - A masked camouflaged soldier of Ukraine’s volunteer Tornado company leads the reporter down a narrow stairway to a dark basement at the unit’s base in the city of Pryvillya in Luhansk Oblast.
“Frankly speaking, I don’t see any torture chambers here,” he jokes, referring to accusations that Tornado members, ostensibly subordinate to the Interior Ministry, tortured prisoners.
He then shows boxes with food supplied by volunteers and says storing them is the basement’s main purpose.The group says that Ruslan Onyshchenko, their unit commander, and 11 other Tornado soldiers were detained by Ukrainian authorities last week. Authorities said only eight were arrested. They face charges of kidnapping, torture and rape.
Authorities argue that the arrests are part of their efforts to introduce law and order among volunteer units. Critics of the government portray this as part of a broader crackdown on the volunteer movement, which is seen as a challenge to President Petro Poroshenko’s power.
The Tornado scandal follows authorities’ conflicts with the Aidar Battalion and the nationalist Right Sector’s Ukrainian Volunteer Corps and their fitful efforts to integrate them into the chain of military command.
Volunteer units must be made to obey the law, political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said by phone. “There must the rule of law,not the rule of the assault rifle.”
The situation around Tornado has also attracted attention to the massive problem of smuggling and corruption in the war zone.
Tornado fighters allege that the arrests are payback from Luhansk Oblast Police Chief Anatoly Naumenko, whom Tornado accuses of running a protection racket for smuggling to and from Russian-occupied territories jointly with Kremlin-backed separatists. He has also been accused of having political ties to them.
The conflict with Naumenko, who reports to Ukrainian authorities, reached a fever pitch on June 24.
Luhansk Governor Gennady Moskal’s press office said then that authorities had detained two snipers who were de facto part of Tornado but were not officially registered.They were plotting to kill Naumenko, the press office alleged. Serhiy Batyashov, a soldier of the unit, told the Kyiv Post these detainees were not Tornado fighters.
Last week’s arrests almost led to a violent standoff when Tornado fighters refused to be disarmed. Tensions cooled later when Tornado, which partially consists of former convicts, agreed to cooperate with investigators and to be re-located to another base in the city of Sloviansk in Donetsk Oblast.
They moved camp on June 23. Since the tensions had subsided, soldiers were calm at their Pryvillya base as investigators were searching their personal belongings. Based on a Soviet school’s premises on the outskirts of the town,Tornado fighters were living in Spartan conditions – without running water and with a village-style outhouse.
A fighter showing a basement at the Tornado base in Pryvillya.
During a Shuster Live television show aired on June 19, Ukraine’s Chief Military Prosecutor Anatoly Matios cited alleged eyewitness testimony given by prisoners held by Tornado. The prisoners were “beaten on their legs, buttocks and thighs,” as well as genitalia, he claimed.
Some prisoners were forced to rape other prisoners, he added. “(Tornado fighters) stripped prisoners naked,put them on a concrete floor and poured water on them,” Matios said. “They put a bare electric cable on their heads and genitalia.”
Tornado fighters deny the charges.
They say they have lawfully detained people suspected of links to Kremlin-backed militants. Tornado deputy commander Mykola Tsukur, who has not been detained, also said that the Tornado fighters detained last week are being beaten by the police. “Two were detained and released,” he told the Kyiv Post. “They came back with bruises and without personal belongings.”
The Kyiv Post has obtained photos of the suspects with bruises on their bodies. Valeria Lutkovska, Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, said on June 24 that a probe into the alleged beating of Tornado fighters had been opened.
On June 18, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov ordered Tornado to be disbanded, a process that could lead to fighters not convicted of crimes being reassigned.
The Tornado company has been accused of disobeying the minister, but the fighters deny this.“We are complying with the minister’s order to dissolve and are not rioting,” Tsukur said.
However, he said the unit had refused to obey
an order from their immediate superior, Naumenko, to lay down their weapons and
transfer them to a storage center.
Tsukur said that he deemed this order to be
“criminal” because Tornado fighters’ personal data was publicly available, and
their lives would be in danger if they gave up their weapons.
He also argues that the case against Tornado
has an ulterior motive – the unit’s conflict with Naumenko over smuggling.
The conflict flared up on May 29, when Tsukur
alleged on the Shuster Live television show that Naumenko was running a joint
smuggling business with Kremlin-backed separatists.
Artem Shevchenko, a spokesman for the Interior
Ministry, dismissed the accusations. “Some Tornado soldiers’ attempts to stop trains are an effort to create the positive image of fighters against corruption due to the imminent investigation into the crimes announced by prosecutors,” he said by phone.
Shevchenko said he did
not rule out possible violations during trade with the occupied territories. Investigating such violations is a function of the State Security Service, he added.
Olena Hiklianska, a spokeswoman for the State
Security Service, said by phone she had no information on the supposed
smuggling scheme and Naumenko’s alleged role in it. The Luhansk Oblast police
department was not available for comment.
Tornado soldiers allege that the arrests were
triggered by the unit stopping what they say was a train transporting smuggled
cast iron from the city of Alchevsk in separatist territory on June 16.
A cache with explosives and separatist
propaganda materials were found on the train, the group said. They also allege
that the train didn’t have proper documents.
Luhansk Oblast Governor Hennady Moskal said in
a June 17 Facebook post that the train had been transporting coal, not cast
iron, was bound for Alchevsk and had all the proper documents.
However, supposed photos of the train provided
by Tornado show cast iron.
Batyashov told the Kyiv Post that Tornado had also previously stopped trains with timber bound for separatist territories and trains with coal and cast iron traveling to Ukrainian-controlled areas.
“This is huge money. Imagine, I have once been offered Hr 30,000 to Hr 100,000 to let a vehicle pass,” Batyashov said.
Tornado fighters have also claimed that
Naumenko had been appointed head of the so-called “people’s militia” by Luhansk
separatist leader Valery Bolotov in April 2014.
Naumenko denies the allegation but 1+1 television
channel footage published on YouTube on May 1, as well as numerous separatist
websites say that he was appointed by Kremlin-backed militants.
Despite the conflict with Naumenko and the
criminal investigation, Tornado soldiers hope for the better.
“All fighters of the unit are ready to keep
defending our homeland at the cost of our lives and prove that we are neither
marauders nor murderers nor traitors,” Tsukur said.
Tornado Deputy Commander Mykola Tsukur being interviewed by the Kyiv Post.
Kyiv Post staff
writer Oleg Sukhov can be reached at email@example.com.