An elderly soldiers' rights activist who has been investigating the deaths of Russian servicemen in eastern Ukraine was jailed in Russia for two days, despite her poor health, and now faces fraud charges.
Lyudmila Bogatenkova, 73, who has diabetes and high blood pressure, was detained on Friday in southern Russia on charges of fraud, which can carry up to a four-year prison sentence. The office of Soldiers' Mothers, the rights group she works with, was also searched by law enforcement officers. Bogatenkova was released today under an order not to leave the city without the permission of investigators.
"She was without her medicine for an entire day … and also without normal meals," Bogatenkova's lawyer Andrei Sabinin told VICE News. "In regards to a person at that age and in that condition, that's just sadism."
The move comes after Bogatenkova, who has long battled extreme hazing — including the case of a conscript who died after allegedly being beaten by his commander — and other rights abuses as head of the soldiers' rights group in the Stavropol region, gathered testimony on Russian servicemen who were reportedly killed in eastern Ukraine, where Moscow has been accused of providing men and weapons to pro-Russia rebels. In August, Bogatenkova provided a list of nine such casualties to representatives of the presidential human rights commission and Soldiers' Mothers, and said she had a tentative list of 400 soldiers who had been wounded or killed in eastern Ukraine.
According to presidential human rights commission member Sergei Krivenko, the fraud charges stem from a complaint written against Bogatenkova four years ago, which until now had not been investigated. Krivenko told the newspaper Vedomosti that the fraud investigation was an attempt to pressure Bogatenkova after she recently began helping soldiers who had refused to be deployed to the Rostov region. That region was reportedly the staging area from where Russian soldiers were sent to eastern Ukraine.
The presidential human rights commission said over the weekend it is seeking details from the Investigative Committee over Bogatenkova's case.
Secretive funerals for dead servicemen, commentary from their families, and statements by rebel leaders have suggested that a large Russian force was deployed to eastern Ukraine in mid-August, after which the pro-Russia rebels suddenly turned the tide and pushed back advancing Ukrainian troops. One rebel leader even said 1,200 fighters and 150 vehicles had arrived at that time after "training" in Russia for four months.
Investigating the deaths of Russian soldiers in Ukraine has proven to be a dangerous pursuit. Lev Shlosberg, a newspaper publisher and local assemblyman in the city of Pskov, said he was beaten up by unidentified men in August after he published an investigation of two paratroopers' funerals that suggested Russian troops had been deployed to Ukraine. BBC reporters said they were also attacked in August after investigating secret burials.
The St. Petersburg branch of Soldiers' Mothers was placed on a "foreign agent" blacklist in August after it said more than 100 Russian soldiers had been killed in eastern Ukraine.
Sabinin told VICE News that although a court ruling confining Bogatenkova to pre-trial detention has yet to be enforced, they will appeal the decision to bring attention to her poor treatment by law enforcement authorities thus far. She is in poor condition after her detainment this weekend and will likely be hospitalized on Tuesday, he said.
According to Sabinin, Bogatenkova became ill during a court hearing on Saturday and had to be attended to by an ambulance crew. The court nonetheless ordered her to be confined in pre-trial detention, but she was placed in a temporary holding cell after a regional pre-trial detention center refused to accept her due to her poor condition. After being held for two days in her hometown of Budyonnovsk, she was sent home under an order not to leave the city.
The Investigative Committee has not commented on the case, and Sabinin also declined to discuss the exact nature of the charges. An assistant to Bogatenkova told the publication Russkaya Planeta that a defendant she had previously helped had accused her of taking half a million rubles ($12,000), which she has denied.
The presidential human rights council has asked the Investigative Committee to open a criminal case over the recent deaths of Russian servicemen, but has yet to receive an answer. The council has also reportedly passed a letter about the situation to president Vladimir Putin.
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