President Volodymyr Zelensky awarded the Order "For Courage" to judge Yulia Matveeva on December 16, 2022.
President Volodymyr Zelensky awarded the Order "For Courage" to judge Yulia Matveeva on December 16, 2022. © Supreme Court of Ukraine

Ukraine: "I Want Justice to be Done”

How a local judge was imprisoned for refusing a Russian request to serve on the “supreme court” of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic.

Tuesday, 5 March, 2024

Yuliia Matveeva decided to leave Mariupol when an artillery shell hit the five-story building opposite her family home, shattering the walls and engulfing the block in flames. 

Mariopul had been under intense fire from the Russian army for weeks, but Matveeva, a judge at the city’s Illichivsk court, had delayed leaving because she was due to hear a petition to extend the arrest of a man accused of a serious crime. 

Nava Jamshidi/Getty Images

"He was wanted for a long time, law enforcement agencies took many measures to detain him, and I didn't want him to go free because of my fault,” she recalled. “It prevented me from leaving the city earlier.”

By the time Matveeva, her 13-year-old daughter, mother and husband left on March 19, 2022, she said that they had been living “like zombies – it was impossible to sleep, eat, you were constantly under stress from explosions…we had one goal - to get to the territory controlled by Ukraine alive”.

But their car was stopped at the very first checkpoint on the way out of the city.

"We need to make sure that there is no blood on your hands," a Russian soldier told Matveeva and her husband, also a lawyer.

They were told to return to the police station in Mangush for a couple of hours of questioning.

“We are free people, we have free choice."

"We could not even imagine that we could be held prisoner,” she said. “We are free people, we have free choice - we want to leave. We thought that at least some rules and rights should work. But everything there is built on lies. Two hours stretched over seven months.”

The pair were immediately separated and Matveeva managed to persuade the guards to let her call her mother to tell her that she and her daughter should make alternative arrangements. Months later, she discovered that they had managed to get to Zaporizhzhia and from there to Kyiv.

Matveeva was held in Donetsk in conditions she now describes as inhumane until, in May 2022, she received an extraordinary offer. 

She was summoned by an investigator who offered her the position of judge of the Supreme Court of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic. If she agreed, they promised to release her husband, reunite her with her family and provide her with an apartment and a car.

"I said, 'I'm not interested.' To which they replied, "You have chosen your own fate, you will stay in prison." 

Matveeva was charged with terrorism, facilitating actions aimed at the violent seizure of power and violation of the constitution of the Donetsk People's Republic. She faced 12 to 20 years in prison or execution.

The months that followed were grueling. 

"I believed that the state would not abandon us.”

"How can you get used to the fact that you are forced to stand from 6 in the morning to 10 in the evening?” she asked. “How could I get used to being dragged with a bag on my head and my hands tied through the prison corridor? When I fell, the guards could wipe their feet on me. They used to tell me that they were taking me to be shot.”

Thoughts of her family sustained her, along with the belief that a prisoner exchange would be arranged.

"I was sure that we would be liberated, even when the prison guards convinced us otherwise,” she continued. “We often argued with other detained women about this. The girls did not believe that there would be an exchange, that someone would need us. And I believed that the state would not abandon us.”

Then, in October, Matveeva was asked to sign a release certificate and realised that an exchange was imminent. An hour before her release, she discovered that her husband was alive and was in fact being held in the same prison.

"I pressed myself against the bars and shouted, ‘Artem, I love you.’ And from cell to cell they passed the message, ‘Artem, she loves you’. And it was so important to hear that everything was fine with my husband, because he has many medical conditions and needs support all the time. I heard the answer from him - I'm fine. Then I asked the prisoners to tell my husband that I was being exchanged, so he knew I would be liberated."

Matveeva returned from captivity on the eve of her daughter's 14th birthday on October 17, 2022. 

Yuliia Matveeva after her POWs exchange, 17 October, 2022. Photo courtesy of Y. Matveeva

"We fell asleep together, holding hands. In the morning the next day, my daughter said, ‘how good it is that I fell asleep and woke up with my mother.’ And for a few weeks after my release, I thought that I was still sleeping, that one day, when I wake up, I will again find myself in prison in inhumane conditions."

Matveeva's husband was released in February 2023 and criminal proceedings have now been opened over their imprisonment. Both have been questioned as victims. 

"I don't know what stage the investigation is at,” she said. “However, I want justice to be done."

Matveeva, who is in her forties, is now a judge of the Shevchenkivsky District Court of Kyiv, which she said struggled with the same systemic shortages of personnel as the wider national justice system. 

"There should be 42 judges in the district court; there are currently 31. This is very few for a large amount of work. Over the past two years, about 40 court secretaries and 17 assistant judges have resigned. There is a constant outflow of personnel. No one can replace them. And the cases that need to be considered do not go anywhere… this is a big problem.”

As for Matveeva’s own plans for the future, she said that she was simply happy to be alive and with her family.

“Life has taught me to live today….material things do not matter, only family has real value. We lost everything - property, car, things that were important and valuable to us in the past life. All this no longer exists."

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