Russians are Planning to Bring Ukrainian Children to Trial. 16 Year-Old Tihran Ohannisian and Mykyta Khanhanov May Face 20 Years in Prison
On May 24, 2023, two teenagers, Tihran Ohannisian and Mykyta Khanhanov, both born in 2006, were charged by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation with allegedly attempting sabotage of the railway in temporarily occupied Berdiansk, Zaporizhzhia Oblast.
“We don’t care. I’m an orphan.”
On the night of September 30, 2022, Russian soldiers abducted 16 year-old Tihran Ohannisian, who lived together with his grandmother in occupied Berdiansk. The boy’s family was evacuated to Germany at the beginning of the full-scale invasion. They planned to return, but the youngest child fell ill and their arrival was postponed. Tihran refused to go abroad. He said that he would stay with his grandmother.
At night, a KAMAZ truck and eight jeeps with Ukrainian license plates drove to the house where the boy lived. 20 soldiers wearing Russian military uniform and accompanied by dogs came out from the vehicles. The men spoke Russian. Some of them had a Caucasian accent.
“From 2 a.m. till 4:50 a.m., the Russians searched my house, hit repeatedly my mother and child with a machine gun butt,” says Oksana Starovierova, Tihran’s mother. “The soldiers took away our computers, laptops, my son’s tablet, phones and food. And what was not stolen was damaged by them.”
The most aggressive soldier had a white tape on his head, the others – on their hands.
The Russians explained to the boy’s grandmother that they had been reported that a particularly dangerous criminal resided at this address. They did not specify who exactly. Instead, they grabbed Tihran, pulled a bag over his head and stuffed him in a car. They said that they would take him to a temporary detention center.
“My mother cried that a child cannot be treated like that. Then a soldier speaking with a Caucasian accent replied, “We don’t care. I’m an orphan,” Oksana repeats his words.
“My son was tortured with electric shock. They carried out a mock execution and told him to say goodbye to his life.”
At first, the boy was kept in a common cell together with adult civilian hostages, but later he was transferred to a one-man cell. All that happened in the police station occupied by Russians on 3 Hretska Street. Tihran’s grandmother came every day and demanded that her grandson be released. Occupiers did not allow to see him. On October 2, 2022, on the third day of detention, the military reported that the boy had a fever, they had given him a blanket, and the woman was asked to bring a T-shirt.
“The soldier who received the things from my mother showed her a photo on his phone of my son sitting in the corner by a painted wall, wrapped in a blanket, with a package next to him that we had passed. The man said, “Don’t worry, he likes it here,” says Oksana.
On October 5, the boy was suddenly released. Maybe as a result of the media publicity attracted by the boy’s mother. When Tihran returned home, the family learned that Russians had tortured him during interrogations.
“My son was tortured with electric shock. They took him out to a field and carried out a mock execution. Russians asked him, “So, are you going to become a guerrilla?!” And they ordered him to get prepared to die,” the woman says.
The teenager’s mother says that it is very hard for him to go through what is happening.
The same day when Russian soldiers abducted Tihran Ohannisian, that is, September 30, 2022, they came to another boy – 16 year-old Mykyta Khanhanov, Tihran’s classmate. The family was not at home, so the military went away. But two weeks later they returned. That time, Mykyta and his father were taken away and driven to the police station, where they were interrogated and released.
Thereafter occupiers regularly interrogated Tihran and Mykyta and searched their homes. The children were obliged to report to the police station every day.
At checkpoints, Russians searched the car for a 16 year-old teenager
In January 2023, Oksana Starovierova, together with her husband and younger children, decided to return to Berdiansk in order to take Tihran abroad.
“We set off in our car: me, my husband, Tihran and two younger children,” says Oksana. “First we went through filtration in Manhush, then we crossed the border in Rostov. But in Taganrog, we were stopped by the Russian traffic police – they explained that it was at the request of the Rostov customs authorities. They took Tihran out of the car and drove him to the police station, where he was interrogated for 5 hours. Then Tihran and I were taken to a police station in the village of Pokrovske. After some time, the military arrived from Krasnodar Krai. When they saw us, they were taken aback. They said they had received a report about dangerous criminals trying to escape. Tihran and I were put in a military vehicle, and my husband with younger children drove behind in our car.”
The family were transported to the Rostov customs office, where they were handed over to Russia-controlled military officials from the so-called “DPR”, who took them to Mariupol. There, the captives were searched by military personnel from Chechnya, then they were taken to Berdiansk.
“Our younger children were escorted to their grandmother, and I, my husband and Tihran were locked up in the cells equipped by Russians in the building of the captured Berdiansk Military Commissariat,” continues Oksana. “In a day, an investigator came and ordered us to sign a written promise not to leave the city. Then we were released and allowed to go home.”
Oksana and her husband came to the Military Commissariat every day in order to gain permission to leave the city. Ultimately, Russians allowed the parents and their younger children to leave the occupied territory, but Tihran was prohibited to depart from the city.
When Oksana, her husband and their younger children were leaving Berdiansk, the Russian military thoroughly searched their car at roadblocks. They said that they were looking for a 16 year-old boy.
A local lawyer suggests the children perjuring themselves
In February, a Russian investigator for particularly important cases came to Berdiansk to interrogate the boys. On April 7, the children were taken to Rostov for psychological and psychiatric examination.
Now Tihran and Mykyta are de facto under house arrest in occupied Berdiansk. On May 24, both boys were charged under Article 281 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation which provides for a punishment of 10 to 20 years in prison. In the indictment, the investigator claims that at the beginning of September 2022, the boys conspired to provide support to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. According to the investigator, they jointly damaged the railway tracks in order to disrupt provision of resources to the Russian armed forces.
The children were assigned local lawyers. One of them suggests the boys perjuring themselves.
Andrii Yakovliev, the managing partner of the JSC “Umbrella” and MIHR expert, agreed to comment on some aspects of this case with the permission of Tihran Ohannisian’s family. According to him, the occupation authorities have no right to apply Russian criminal legislation within the occupied territory. This follows from Article 65 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which states that the penal provisions enacted by the Occupying Power shall not come into force before they have been published and brought to the knowledge of the inhabitants in their own language. The effect of these provisions is not retroactive.
“Contrary to this, Russians apply their own criminal legislation and seem to give it retroactive effect,” emphasizes Yakovliev. “Moreover, Tihran’s detention, deprivation of liberty for 5 days and his torture during this period indicate that he was denied the right to a fair trial.”
The lawyer underlines the fact that the boys are denied the right to a fair trial, because according to Article 75 of the Additional Protocol, no one shall be compelled to testify against himself. The torture inflicted on Tihran constitutes one of the most serious violations not only of laws and customs, but also of peacetime law. Under such circumstances, incriminating evidence collected by Russian investigators cannot be admitted.
“Pro forma presence of lawyers in this case does not make the situation any better, as Russian authorities have engaged their own lawyers appointed and controlled by them. They do not have any practical possibility to act as counsels for the defense,” comments Andrii Yakovliev. “Instead, the parents cannot find other lawyers who would agree to provide legal assistance. Independent lawyers complain that if they really start defending, as a legal counsel is expected to do, they themselves will be subjected to persecution.”
Yakovliev believes that under such circumstances, there is no reason to trust the investigation, since it is initially based on the fruit of the poisonous tree, which makes all evidence inadmissible in a criminal trial. However, it seems that international rules and regulations are not mandatory for Russian investigators. The case is about to be brought to the court, where it will be considered by a “judge” who is completely dependent on the occupation authorities and appointed by them.
The Media Initiative for Human Rights calls on the international community to take all possible public and non-public actions in order to free Tihran Ohannisian and Mykyta Khanhanov from persecution by the Russian authorities as soon as possible and ensure their unimpeded departure to the territory control by the Ukrainian government or to third countries. LinkAmbassador of the United Kingdom in Ukraine Melinda Simmons, the U.S. Department of State, Delegation of the European Union to Ukraine, U.S. Mission to the OSCE and other international institutions have already responded to the call.
All persons involved in persecution of Tihran and Mykyta, including the leadership of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation and top military and political leadership of Russia, should be held criminally liable and subjected to harsh sanctions in all countries of the civilized world which assign a high priority to the rule of law and human rights.