The Donbass GULAG Archipelago
How a Ukrainian human rights organization
How a Ukrainian human rights organization uncovered prison slave labor in occupied territory
On October 3, the Eastern Human Rights Group published an in-depth report (RU) on slave labor in prison camps in the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR). Most of the prisoners were present in the facilities before 2014, and saw conditions severely deteriorate after the Ukrainian government lost authority over the prisons. Many of these prisoners, which number over 5,000, suffer from inhumane treatment such as torture, starvation, and solitary confinement, and carry out slave labor that is “reminiscent of Soviet GULAGs.”
We were able to interview Pavel Lisyansky, the Director of the Eastern Human Rights Group, in order to understand how his group conducted its investigation, and what role digital forensics and open source research played in uncovering the information.
Interview with Pavel Lisyansky, Director of the Eastern Human Rights Group
DFRLab: Why did you decide to investigate this issue?
Lisyansky: Ever since my university years, I’ve been involved with the protection of human rights, including juvenile detention. Starting in the summer of 2016, information came to us about prison labor being used in illegal mines in the LNR. It was then that we first started to investigate this topic. People began to ask questions about help with this problem, and so we decided to help people.
How did you find information about the prison colonies and prisoners?
Through relatives who appealed to us and open sources of information, we began to analyze the events taking place [in the prison colonies of the LNR], and then we got into contact with the normal workers of the penitentiary system who disclosed some new facts to us regarding forced labor. And as a third source of information, we communicated with the prisoners. With the help of relatives, we verified the identity of every prisoner with whom we spoke. Relatives did not tell us about the forced labor. They talked more about the beatings and the prisoners’ inability to be transferred to territory controlled by Ukraine. Now, after two years, they have become accustomed to the fact that their relatives in prison are working for free. And even consider it normal.
In fact, the information was gathered up bit-by-bit, and initially we shared it primarily with the UN, OSCE, and Red Cross, but they don’t talk about this problem and have not raised it, and so we decided to act independently.
Did you use any sort of information from “open sources,” such as online video clips from YouTube, photographs from Vkontakte, and so on?
We used any sort of open source available in order to understand who has worked with this problem before us and what was achieved, in order to understand what negative experiences came from it, and so on. We have tried to find any sort of clue in order to understand this situation with more detail and more objectively!
What outcomes have you achieved after the publication of your report last week?
After the publication of our report, this problem has generated a public outcry throughout the information space. Journalists and human rights defenders working on a higher level than us have become interested in this problem, and international organizations have again begun to look for solutions regarding this issue.
The Eastern Human Rights Group describes nine prisons that are still operational, with prisoner populations that range from 130 to 1470. Some of the prisons, such as one in Chervonopartizansk near Sverdlovsk, were destroyed during the war.
We can observe the prisons over time, showing how they continue to operate, or have sustained damage from the war over time. A time-lapse series of satellite images of the prison near the village of Leninskoe (№38) shows that the prison was relatively untouched from the war.
The same cannot be said about the prison (№ 68) located in the village of Chervonopartizansk. A photograph on Panoramio from 2010 shows the prison before the war:
A series of satellite images from 2013 until 2015 reveals the devastation sustained by this prison once the war came to the Donbass.
The roof on the large building in the northwest corner of the complex (a tsekh, or workshop, according to Wikimapia) collapsed sometime before the August 8, 2014 satellite image, and the remaining buildings sustain damage of their own around the same time and soon after. We can also observe craters appearing in the field to the southeast of the prison in the summer of 2014.
Access to information
As Pavel Lisyansky described in his interview, much of the research done for this investigation was carried out with human contacts — relatives of the prisoners, workers in the prison system, and the prisoners themselves. However, it is still possible to look into the prison colonies with just an internet connection.
Director Lisyansky used a news broadcast from June 9, 2016 from the “Luhansk Vesti” news service to have a current view of the situation in Prison Colony №19, located in the village of Vakhrushevo. From about 16 minutes onwards in this video, a news broadcast describes a school trip to the prison, where we can see prisoners and their work areas.
The Eastern Human Rights Group was also able to find information from local news publications regarding the output of the prison colonies, including one article that describes how “over 20 million rubles” (about $317,000) of goods have been produced since the beginning of 2016, as of October 6.
Going forward, the Eastern Human Rights Group will continue to investigate slave labor in Donbass prisons, including an upcoming report on the issue in the Donetsk Oblast. As for digital forensics, the group’s researchers are looking into possible social media materials and media reports on the prisons, including any reports on the conditions and practices of the prisons from current and former workers and prisoners.
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