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Russian volunteer who helped hundreds of Ukrainians return home dies in pretrial detention after reportedly being tortured during arrest

Cover images: Alexander Demidenko's social media accounts, Mozhem Obyasnit'

The 61-year-old Russian volunteer Alexander Demidenko, who had helped hundreds of Ukrainian refugees return home since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion, has died in a pretrial detention center in the southwestern Russian city of Belgorod, according to a report by the publication Vot Tak citing the man’s relatives and two anonymous sources in his inner circle.

Demidenko had been under arrest for six months before his death. In October 2023, he was reportedly abducted from the Kolotilovka checkpoint in the Belgorod Region, where he was escorting an elderly Ukrainian woman across the border.

Three days later, law enforcement officials brought him back home for a search of the property. His wife Natalia Vishnevskaya then noticed numerous signs of torture on her husband's body, which she shared with the Telegram channel Mozhem Obyasnit’ (lit. “We Can Explain”).

The search at Demidenko’s home uncovered a grenade and fuses dating back to the 1940s, which his wife believes were WWII-era weapons her husband found on the property.

The man then served two consecutive jail terms for public alcohol consumption — a misdemeanor offense. During the second stint in jail, authorities placed him under investigation for the illegal possession of weapons, after which he was transferred to a pre-trial detention center.

According to Demidenko's son, Alexander pleaded guilty to the weapons charge, but did so under pressure from investigators in order to protect his loved ones from prosecution.

Demidenko's son Oleg also told Novaya Gazeta Europe that his father had called him and described being tortured. According to Oleg, his father was “tied to a radiator and gunshots were fired at his feet.”

According to Vot Tak, Demidenko died on April 5. The man’s lawyer informed his wife and son of his passing three days later. Demidenko’s cause of death is still unknown.

“I think [my] father [committed suicide], as the thought of probable future imprisonment was intolerable for such an active and freedom-loving man. He was already [being killed] psychologically during the six months in the detention center, without visits with relatives and at least books,” Demidenko's son wrote on Telegram.

Before his arrest, Demidenko helped Ukrainian refugees to get from Belgorod to the checkpoint on the border with Ukraine. He also provided many of them with accommodation in his home.

According to figures cited by the independent media outlet Mediazona, Demidenko could have provided up to 900 Ukrainians with shelter as they made their way back into Kyiv-controlled territory from Russia, where they were either forcibly deported or evacuated from what is now occupied territory.

It is possible to cross the border from Russia into Ukraine by passing through the Kolotilovka checkpoint and then walking two kilometers (1.2 miles) into Ukrainian-controlled territory. According to The Moscow Times, around 100 people are believed to cross every day.

Vot Tak (lit. “The Way It Is”) is a Russian-language affiliate of the Poland-based broadcaster Belsat. Russia’s Ministry of Justice labeled Vot Tak a “foreign agent” in January.

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