On September 7, 2019, 35 hostages were returned to Ukraine after being released from Russian prisons: 11 political prisoners and 24 naval servicemen. Russia had accused all of them of fabricated crimes. Moreover, the range of accusations was very broad, from “illegally crossing the border” in the case of the sailors, to “terrorist activity and sabotage” in the case of filmmaker Oleh Sentsov and the Crimean “saboteur” Yevhen Panov. In return, Ukraine sent more than 30 individuals to Russia, among whom were, among others, participants in the May 2, 2014 fire at the Union building in Odesa, terrorists who blew up Ukrainian police officers, and Volodymyr Tsemakh, whom the media called a “valuable witness” in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Boeing MH17 in July 2014.
As of July of this year, the Russian Federation was holding close to 100 Ukrainians in its jails and in occupied Crimea whom it was persecuting for political reasons. According to human rights activists from the Center for Civil Rights, which has been working to help political prisoners for nearly six years now, the RF continues to hold at least 86 Ukrainians. In addition, the Security Bureau of Ukraine (SBU) reports that nearly 230 prisoners are being held in occupied Donbas, including many civilians. So far, no mechanism has been found to gain their release, as all the prisoner exchanges that have taken place so far have been completely coincidental. Moreover, every time, new approaches were involved and new agreements between Kyiv and Moscow. After the September swap, however, it’s possible to see certain trends.
“This was the first large-scale exchange because every other time in the last six years, only a dozen or two hostages were released,” explains Oleksandra Matviychuk, coordinator of the #SaveOlegSentsov campaign and chair of the board of the Center for Civil Rights, a CSO. “There are two obvious things going on. First, far from everyone was released. According to our sources, Russia is still holding at least 86 Ukrainians for political reasons. Ombudsman Liudmyla Denisova has mentioned 110 individuals, but she hasn’t published the full list, so we can’t confirm who’s on it. At the same time, the SBU is talking about 227 POWs and civilians being held in ORDiLO. But this is probably just the tip of the iceberg, because even the International Committee of the Red Cross has full access to those territories. So we don’t really know exactly how many are being held in ORDiLO.”
RELATED ARTICLE: Russia’s word
Matviychuk also points out that the political prisoners who were returned to Ukraine on September 7 were generally individuals who had high profiles thanks to the press. This, she says, suggests that public support and constant reminders in the press could help get more Ukrainians released.
“I’m convinced that the new administration in Ukraine is standing on two pillars: PR and technology,” says Matviychuk. “And I think it’s a major accomplishment of civil society that it raised the question of Moscow’s hostages to such a high level. Polls have shown that the PR the current leadership gains from can only be positive. With Ukraine’s international partners, things are not so straightforward. If we don’t start talking, right now, about the fact that hundreds more are still being held, then international leaders will be tempted to forget about this history, thinking, ‘Russia released Sentsov, so what more do you want?’ They all have more than enough important stuff of their own distracting them.”
If we consider the purely Ukrainian dimension of this issue, the first issue is that the ombudsman to represent Moscow’s hostages still hasn’t been appointed. It’s worth pointing out that, after his inauguration on May 21, newly-elected President Volodymyr Zelenskiy met with the families of Russia’s political prisoners and made a series of promises, one of which was to appoint such an ombudsman and to establish a Coordinating Office under the Office of the President.
“Officially there’s still no person who is authorized by the president to engage in negotiations,” says Ihor Kotelianets, brother of political prisoner Yevhen Panov and director of United Parents of Kremlin Political Prisoners, a CSO. “Such a person is needed, in order to coordinate all agencies working to release our prisoners. A major role in the last talks that ended in the release of 35 Ukrainian was played by President Zelenskiy’s aide Andriy Yermak. From what I know, it was he who led negotiations on behalf of Ukraine. Liudmyla Denisova was responsible for making sure the agreements were carried out. I think that they will continue to work this way going forward as well. Without establishing a separate entity. In fact, we requested that a non-politician to engage in this work without publicity. This was, in fact, Yermak. And from what I know, there won’t be a Coordinating Council under the president, although they are planning something similar that they expect to announce shortly.”
The legislative base also remains hard to understand. Over the last few years, various MPs have tried to submit bills on the status of individuals persecuted for political reasons. The documents were more broadly known as bills on political prisoners. However, not one of them managed to get complete support, whether among the families of Moscow’s hostages, or among human rights activists.
“From a legal point of view, they weren’t done right,” explains Kotelianets. “That those who were released were provided with excellent medical care is entirely thanks to the president. Meaning hand-management. But there are other cases, as well. Take political prisoner Roman Ternovskiy, who was arrested in Russia in October 2017 and charged with ‘involvement in the activities of a banned organization, Praviy Sektor.’ He was released and returned home two weeks before the official exchange, and now he’s trying to get rehabilitated. He lives in the city of Izium in Kharkiv Oblast. He has to travel to Kharkiv nearly every day, to undergo tests and do a lot of paperwork. And he’s doing it all out of his own pocket. Of course, he has no job and he’s at the point of collapse. At the same time, everything possible was done for those who managed to be part of the exchange. Yes, that deserves enormous gratitude. But the issue has to be properly regulated in law. Right now, the president has a monomajority in the Rada and the Government appears to be prepared to approve the necessary changes to existing laws by the end of the year.”
At the same time, says the rights activist, there is a slew of bills that the previous Rada failed to pass. One of them is the bill on war crimes, which is supposed to harmonize Ukrainian legislation with international humanitarian law. Among others, it has to introduce the concept of a “crime against humanity.” The previous legislature only passed first reading of the bill and now it’s up to the new Rada.
Another important step, for both political prisoners and POWS would be ratifying the Rome Statute, which would allow Ukraine to cooperate closely with the International Criminal Court. “There are too many myths surrounding this document,” says Oleksandra Matviychuk. “For instance, one ex-MP once wrote that once we ratify it, all the Ukrainians who defended their country with rifles in their hands would be taken to court – because we never officially declared war. But this is nonsense. What’s more, the ICC focuses on ‘big fish,’ not only those who carried out orders, but those who issued them. This is actually an opportunity to bring Vladimir Putin to justice. Let’s assume Ukraine doesn’t want to work with this court because it supposedly doesn’t believe in the ICC’s effectiveness. But what’s the alternative?”
Meanwhile, Ukraine needs to keep in mind that several million Ukrainians live in occupied Crimea and Donbas. In effect, they are all hostages to Russia. As the previous imprisonments have shown, even approving the annexation of Crimea or the war in the Donbas doesn’t protect anyone against being persecuted for political reasons. In fact, we shouldn’t forget that Russia continues to actively use its anti-terrorist legislation... The most notable arrests in the occupied peninsula at the end of March all involved Crimean Tatars who were accused to belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir, which has been declared an extremist organization in Russia and banned, although it has no history of extremist activity and is completely legal in Ukraine. More than half of those arrested were members of an organization called “Crimean Solidarity,” which was established by the families of political prisoners from Crimea. These people went to court hearings and they collected and delivered “care packages” to detention centers. In effect, they were arrested for non-violent protests, but what Russia used against them was anti-terrorist legislation.
RELATED ARTICLE: Exchange rate
The relatives themselves note that the only possible effective way to avoid future arrests right now is probably further economic sanctions for violating human rights and freedoms. “If a thief steals something or someone and is not punished, he will continue to do so,” says Kotelianets. “That’s why I think sanctions might help. Today, for instance, there’s a lot of talk about Nord Stream II. If the project is completed it will allow the Russian powers-that-be to survive without harm. But how can anyone build relations with a partner whose arms are covered in blood to the elbow? Europe may express ‘concern,’ but Russia happily ignores that ‘concern.’ It only understands when its wallet is hit. And so this wallet needs to be linked to Russia’s violations of human rights, to its persecution of individuals for political reasons.”
Getting back to the new administration, it’s hard to say whether it has a strategic vision of resolving the issue of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. So far, there doesn’t seem to be a strategy in place. However paradoxical this may sound, the actual negotiations process needs to take place outside the public eye, because unnecessary publicity is likely to get in the way of the return of these Ukrainians. As sources close to the negotiations process told The Ukrainian Week, this has already happened before: Russia saw heightened interest in specific individuals and began to issue new demands, often demands that Ukraine could not meet.
The final strategic objective that those in power need to remember, as well as ordinary Ukrainians, is that even if every single hostage and POW were released, nothing would really stop Russia from turning around and arresting a whole lot more hostages among those who currently live in occupied parts of Ukraine. What is really needed is something to prevent Moscow from such actions in the first place.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj