Tortured In Kiev: A Maidan Activist's Brutal Account

And Igor Luzenko is the lucky one. The other activist with whom he was abducted, beaten and interrogated didn't make it home alive.

Police take charge in Kiev
Police take charge in Kiev
Julia Smirnova

KIEV — Igor Luzenko was still very weak. He was lying in a private hospital in Kiev with an IV drip attached to his arm. His mother had made him tea sweetened with honey, and someone else had brought some homemade apple pie. On the table next to his bed was a letter from his young daughter and the English-language book Why Nations Fail about the role of political institutions in the wealth and development of nations.

The 35-year-old Maidan activist has blue eyes, and was speaking with a slight lisp – but that was because one of his teeth was knocked out. The length of his right arm is also completely blue from bruising, and his injured legs make it difficult to walk. But he and his family are happy that he’s alive.

One week ago, Luzenko and another man, Yuri Werbizki, were abducted. And Werbizki is now counted as one of the four casualties registered at the Kiev demonstrations whose names are known.

"I heard they needed cars to drive injured folks to the hospital, and gave them my number," Luzenko recalls. Late at night last Tuesday he was asked if he could bring a man from the Maidan to the doctor. The man was Yuri Werbizki; he had an eye injury. Around 4 a.m. the two men were at Octyabrskaya hospital in the capital. An eye specialist was examining Werbizki when Luzenko, who was waiting just outside the consultation room, noticed two powerfully-built men glaring suspiciously at him. They asked him if he and the man being examined were the ones who had just arrived.

Luzenko says he then used his cell phone to call a friend. "I thought the men would wait around for us outside, then attack and beat us up. I didn’t know that they wanted to grab us right there in the hospital."

"Like prisoners of war"

About five minutes later, seven to 10 men arrived, hit Luzenko over the head, and hurriedly carried him and Werbizki to a minibus. When Luzenko‘s friend arrived by car he saw a minibus and two hospital vans driving off.

"They were very professional," Luzenko says. "In the bus they held our heads and hands down."

A half-hour later they were in the woods somewhere. The two men were forced to their knees and beaten. "We were interrogated like prisoners of war. The abductors asked: Who are you? What were you doing on the Maidan? How much money are they paying you?"

When they learned that Werbizki was from Lviv, they dragged Luzenko some 10 meters away and let him alone for a while, guarded by two men. "They spent most of the time interrogating Yuri and they hit him particularly ferociously because he was from western Ukraine. They then moved on to me, but I could tell that they’d already vented most of their rage on Yuri."

Luzenko in the hospital a week after his abduction (photo: Julia Smirnova)

The interrogation lasted somewhere between 40 and 90 minutes, he estimates. Then they were carried back to the minibus. "Yuri barely moved, just a little bit towards the end of the drive," Luzenko says.

The drive lasted around 20 minutes after which they were carried inside. The men put a bag over Luzenko’s head and bound his hands and feet with duct tape. He thinks the room was a garage because although he couldn’t see anything he could feel metal flooring and could hear a slide-down door. Then the interrogation started again. "They laid me down on my left side and beat me on my right side, sometimes with a wooden stick and sometimes with a metal rod," he says.

That lasted for about a half an hour. The same questions were asked again. Who was financing the Maidan demonstrations? What were the protesters’ plans? What exactly was the Automaidan movement? What was the Right Sector? "But they were interrogating us to put pressure on us, not really to get information," says Luzenko. The same thing was going on with Werbizki in a neighboring space: he could hear him screaming.

After the first round of torture, Luzenko lay on the floor for four to six hours. A man guarding him said several times: "You won’t be here for long, we’re going to take you to the police station soon."

Luzenko remembered that the previous day he’d heard that unknown abductors were driving off with demonstrators, beating them, then delivering them to the police. Except that in his case they didn’t turn him over to the police; there was a second round of beatings instead. "Then they set someone down beside me, maybe it was Yuri." They soon took the person away, however.

Anger spreads

The wounded Luzenko lay on the metal floor for a further one and a half hours before being dragged away to a car and dropped off at the edge of a forest. They forced him to his knees by a tree, saying: "Pray if you want to." And then, without a sound, they disappeared. He was subsequently able to make it on foot to a settlement of dachas less than a kilometer away.

It took Luzenko, who had leg injuries, nearly two hours to cover the distance. "It was tough to walk without fainting," he says. He sang to keep his courage up.

Werbizki had also been delivered to the forest’s edge, but was too injured to be able to stand. He died of hypothermia around 6 a.m. His body was found the next day.

Both cases are now being investigated, but Luzenko doubts the abductors will be found. "There’s a good chance they were from eastern Ukraine and connected either to the militia or the secret service," he ventures. The guards spoke Ukrainian but the bosses were speaking Russian, which is why he believes they came from the Eastern, Russian-speaking part of the country.

What happened to him makes Luzenko doubtful about the perspectives for conflict resolution in Ukraine. "The politicians think this is just about negotiating, but the reality is that it’s a terror campaign against individual citizens."

It is cases of violence such as this that are fueling Ukrainians anger, and bringing them out onto the streets. Many doubt that the powers-that-be really mean it when they say they are seeking peaceful resolution. Over the last few days, there were many similar reports of people being taken into custody and beaten by police. A video showing police abusing a naked demonstrator has caused outrage.

According to volunteers with the Euromaidan SOS association, which is gathering information about those arrested and missing, as of this week, 22 activists were missing in Ukraine. One of the founders of the Automaidan movement has been listed as missing since last Wednesday.

Even people the police merely suspect of being linked to demonstrators are being arrested. "On Sunday in Kiev, people were being arrested because they bought large quantities of food in supermarkets or car tires were found in their car trunks," says Alissa Novitshkova, a Euromaidan SOS coordinator.

There have been many cases in which the injured were arrested in hospitals; even people in critical condition have been dragged into the courtroom, she says. What such incidents do is make people who are not otherwise radical angry at the police and their unofficial accomplices.

"The hate for these people is so great that if there really is a transfer of power, prison would be the only place for them," says Luzenko.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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