Time is running out for Ukrainian prisoners held by Russia and the separatists - they "might not survive until the next round of negotiations.”
Elena Zhemchugova, 50, left, seated by her daughter Anastasia, 20, holds a picture of her husband Vladimir. "His condition is just getting worse," she says. (Photo: Matthew Vickery for USA TODAY)
KYIV, Ukraine - Elena Zhemchugova's voice trembles as she describes her husband's deteriorating condition since his capture by Russian-backed separatists last September in war-torn eastern Ukraine.
Her husband Vladimir, 45, was injured by a tripwire and lost both arms and his eyesight before soldiers from the breakaway Luhansk People's Republic imprisoned him.
Elena, 50, worries that her husband - along with dozens of other Ukrainian nationals held by the rebels - will be forgotten as fighting in the east stretches into a third year and the world community has turned its focus away from the war here to global terrorism and other international crises.
"I haven't been able to visit him," Zhemchugova said. "I fear I could be imprisoned myself."
Oleksandra Matviychuk, head of the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine, said 112 political prisoners are being held in separatist prisons, including Zhemchugova's husband. "There are both military personnel and civilians," he said.
"People may be contained in the basements of office buildings, cellars, garages, dog cages and sanitary sewers," Matviychuk said. "Most of these locations are not even suitable for a short detention, while in reality people are kept there for months."
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told Ukrainian media in June that 28 Ukrainian political prisoners were being held in Russia.
Russia denies any direct involvement in the conflict even though the United States and news media have furnished evidence that Moscow is aiding the separatists financially and militarily.
"Russia does not admit to conducting military activity in Ukraine, therefore, it is persecuting them (Ukrainian prisoners) under the criminal code," said Sergei Davidis of the Memorial Human Rights organization, the main group in Russia that handles cases of Ukrainian political prisoners. "Ukrainians call them hostages. We call them political prisoners."
Davidis said the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the prisoners for propaganda purposes. "They are being held in order for Russia to be able to show the world that Ukrainians are criminals," Davidis said.
Zhemchugova said she learned about her husband's condition from a 15-minute YouTube video that showed his eyes closed and his head rolling in visible pain while being interrogated about his involvement in the war.
Her husband had told her he was in eastern Ukraine on a humanitarian mission. The separatists allege he volunteered as a soldier with the Ukrainian army, making and planting improvised explosive devices.
Zhemchugova said she is not sure if the allegations are true, but she hopes her husband and other Ukrainian prisoners could be exchanged for separatists held by the Ukrainian government before their condition becomes more dire.
"He has no arms and no sight. Look at the situation he is in. Maybe his sight can be saved if he's released," she said. "His name used to come up in conversations about prisoner exchanges but not anymore."
Families of several Ukrainians being held in Russian jails said their loved ones are being held on false charges.
Valentyn Vygovskyi, 33, a self-employed mechanic, was working in Sevastopol, Crimea, in September 2014 when he was arrested by a separatist police force. After the separatists discovered he was a Kyiv resident, he was turned over to Russian authorities, accused of being a spy and sentenced to 12 years in a Russian prison. Earlier that year, Russia had annexed Crimea after seizing it from Ukraine.
Those charges are ridiculous, said his father, Petro Vygovskyi. His son, an aviation enthusiast, was more interested in watching planes and tinkering with engines than with politics.
"He grew up near the airport and used to love watching the planes," Vygovskyi said. "He was interested in Russian aviation, and this is how they've accused him of being a spy. But the way the courts work there, they can easily accuse anyone of being a spy."
Vygovskyi said his son has been routinely tortured in prison, including two mock executions in which he was taken into a forest and told to stand by a shallow grave. During one of these trips, Vygovskyi said, his son was shot and wounded.
Tamara Klykh, 72, wipes a tear from her face while talking about the imprisonment of her son Stanislav in Grozny, Chechnya. (Photo: Matthew Vickery for USA TODAY)
Tamara Klykh, who lives in a Kyiv suburb, cannot stop her tears as she recounts the torture of her son, Stanislav, during his two-year imprisonment in Grozny, the capital of Russian-controlled Chechnya.
Klykh said her son was arrested in Orel, Russia, while visiting his Russian girlfriend. He had nothing to confess, so he was beaten repeatedly the first five months of his imprisonment and had the spaces between his fingers sliced open with a knife, she said.
Klykh was allowed to visit him in June and said his physical and mental health had deteriorated so much that she did not even recognize him.
"His eyes are not his anymore, after everything they've done to him," Klykh said. "He told me then that this is the end."
There may be some hope for her son. Ukraine's Justice Minister Pavlo Petrenko said July 7 that Ukraine and Russia were discussing a plan to return Ukrainian prisoners held in Russia and Crimea.
"We are considering an option for a simple physical transfer of those who expressed desire to serve his sentence in the territory of Ukraine," he told reporters in Kyiv, Interfax reported.
The two countries conducted prisoner exchanges in May and June, including freeing Ukrainian female pilot Nadiya Savchenko, a national hero, in a swap for two Russian special forces agents held in Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, left, attends ceremony with Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian pilot, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 25, 2016. Savchenko, who was imprisoned in Russia, was freed in an exchange for two officers of a Russian Special Forces unit. (Photo: Roman Pilipey, European Pressphoto Agency)
Rights activists say such prisoner exchanges appear to be on the increase. "After the propaganda value, Russia may want to get rid of them," Davidis said.
Matviychuk, with the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine, believes time is running out for the prisoners still being held, and the Ukrainian government and international community must appeal to Russia and the separatists to release them immediately because they "might not survive until the next round of negotiations."
Matthew Vickery, Special for USA TODAY
Contributing: Anna Arutunyan in Moscow