Have you ever been to Teplodar in Odesa region or in Borzna in Chernihiv region? These cities unite almost the same number of inhabitants a little more than 10 000 people. This is how many Ukrainians have problems with the law abroad. Almost two-thirds of them are sentenced to imprisonment. 

Russia everything is complicated

There is no fence against ill fortune. Captivity may happen in a foreign land. As in the case of Oleg Sentsov. Unjustly convicted for 20 years for alleged terrorism, the Ukrainian director is serving a sentence thousands of kilometers from his native Crimea, in the north of the Russian Federation. He is on the hunger strike for more than 100 days for the liberation of all captives of the Kremlin. Neither human rights defenders nor relatives are allowed to Oleg, there is no truthful information about his real state of health. In Russia, they doтэt listen to the opinion of either the Ukrainian side or the world community, in particular, in the matter of exchanging prisoners.

The cases of Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko are under special control, the State Secretary of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry Andrii Zayats has recently said. According to him, 27 Ukrainian citizens are kept illegally in the Russian Federation, whose cases are given priority attention of our state. However, they do not exhaust the list of Ukrainian prisoners in Russia.

In August this year, our state filed a lawsuit with the European Court of Human Rights against the Russian Federation for violating the rights of Ukrainian political prisoners. (further information on the website of “Ukrainska pravda”)

Darya Svyrydova, the lawyer of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, explained to Opinion: “The Ministry of Justice has collected facts about the systematic persecution of our citizens by the Russian Federation in the occupied territory of the Crimea and in the Russian Federation since the beginning of the armed conflict. There are more than 70 people, illegally persecuted for the fact that they are Ukrainians or, who openly declared their pro-Ukrainian position. That is the persons for whom gross violations of human rights, torture, imprisonment, unlawful convictions were due to their views. This complaint reinforces the individual ones, previously filed. Not all citizens had the opportunity to independently apply to the European Court, so some facts will be firstly indicated in it”.

However, in addition to the Kremlin prisoners, other of our compatriots languish in foreign prisons. Of course, not all of them are prisoners of conscience, but the Ukrainian state should take care of each of them (sailors, workers and even criminals). According to Mr. Zayats, about 10,5 thousand Ukrainian citizens were arrested, detained, convicted and serving their sentences abroad. (details on the website of MFA Ukraine)

Злий намір чи необережність

Is it much? It is, in comparison with the data six years ago. Then, in the summer of 2012, the Foreign Ministry reported that there were about 3 thousand Ukrainian citizens in foreign penitentiary institutions  ( more information on the website of  “tyzhden.ua”). The biggest number of convicted Ukrainians is in Russia and Belarus, as well as in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Portugal.

Mykola Doroshenko, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Ukraine to the Kyrgyz Republic (2015-2017), told to Opinion: “Unfortunately, a certain number of prisoners are serving their sentences for violating the laws of the countries, in particular, theft, fraud, distribution or transportation of narcotic substances. From my practice – two of our citizens were serving their sentence in the country of residence, the consul of the embassy made a request to the authorities to visit the prisoners. The goal was to make sure of observing their civil rights, to learn about the request for help. Such visits took place constantly, at least once every two months. The prisoners served a long time for transportation and sale of narcotic substances”.

Valeriya Lutkovska, program director of the Ukrainian Institute for Human Rights, noted for Opinion: “If a Ukrainian committed a crime in the territory of another state, Ukraine, in any case, we should ensure that this person’s rights were respected. The level of the rule of law, recorded in the Constitution, is determined by the state’s attitude to its citizen. Ukraine is a party to all the relevant conventions providing for assistance and in terms of interaction between states within the framework of criminal investigations and, insofar, as the person, who committed the crime in the territory of another state, had the right to serve punishment on the territory of Ukraine, as this usually promotes the socialization of the individual”.

The person or his relatives have the right to apply to the Ministry of Justice of our state or the state, in which territory everything happens, in order to initiate the issue of transferring this person to the territory of Ukraine to serve the sentence. Ms. Lutkovska assured that our state is actively involved in this activity. And she does not remember a single case when the Ministry of Justice did not try to take the person with Ukrainian citizenship home to serve the sentence.


Rules during the stay of Ukrainian citizens abroad: a) comply with the requirements of local legislation; b) not to agree to offer to transport things and packages during international air and road transportation; c) ignore illegal job offers abroad, not provided for by law.

Greece – also not so simple

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs named the transportation of illegal migrants or smuggled cargo among the reasons for the detention and conviction of Ukrainian citizens in other countries. According to Greek and Italian law enforcement officers, about 250 of our sailors are under investigation or serving a sentence primarily for the transportation of refugees. Only this summer, within a month, 33 Ukrainian sailors returned to the native land by the efforts of consuls. According to Andrii Zayats, in a separate group are our citizens detained or convicted for selling drugs. Most of these in the Russian Federation – more than 2,300 people, in Thailand and Malaysia – about 200.

A painful point for Ukraine on the map of the world is Greece. In the prisons of this country, there are 161 Ukrainians, 112 of them on charges with transporting illegal migrants. Lyudmyla Denisova, Commissioner of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine for Human Rights, reported about this on July 23, on her Facebook:

“The Ukrainians have packed up the Greek prisons. Our citizens are deceitfully invited to work on cruise liners, yachts, and in exchange under the force or the threat of death, they are forced to transport “illegal migrants” across the sea to Europe. That is why hundreds of Ukrainian sailors were detained by Greek law enforcement agencies. Criminal groups recruit Ukrainians, who have financial difficulties, for such illegal work. Sailors are promised official employment, a job with a contract. Very soon, just a few months later, they find themselves in Greek prisons… And somebody is making huge money on this”.

Andrii Shevchenko, the analyst, project manager of the Assistance Fund Seamen’s Assistance Foundation, confirmed: “Statistics (voiced by Mrs. Denisova on detained Ukrainians in Greece – the author’s note) approximately corresponds to the number of people, referred to. It is impossible to say that they all are innocent or guilty. We need to figure this out. Regarding the legislation of Greece, it is strict. And I understand it because the uncontrolled flow of illegal migrants rushed into the country. Greeks have tightened the law, but at the same time, practically deprived people of the right to fair disassembly. The yachts were arrested repeatedly and there were also some people, who had nothing to do with it. But they treated all the same way. And I would like to see sources first of all: who carries out this recruitment, who is engaged in this business?”

Not only sailors are in trouble, but also people, who have nothing to do with the merchant fleet. Someone wants romance, someone wants to earn money no qualifications are needed, and they promise relatively good money. Andrii Shevchenko advises being careful about those job offers: to check the companies (in the Ministry of Social Policy there is an official register of licensed companies), before signing the contract, find out about social security, insurance, working conditions and living conditions.

Lyudmyla Denisova noted violations of Ukrainian rights in Greek prisons: the problem with translators, the failure to consider mitigating circumstances, ignoring certificates of seafarers, refusal of treatment and poor conditions of maintenance. The Ombudswoman called on the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe to assist in returning the Ukrainians home.

Ms. Denisova continued: “Ukraine and the Grece have joined the Council of Europe Convention on Measures to Combat Human Trafficking. Article 26 of the Convention provides for exemption from punishment if the crime was committed under duress. That is, as in most cases with detained Ukrainian sailors”.

To help everyone

Lyudmyla Denisova, meeting the released from the Russian prison political prisoner Oleksandr Kostenko in early August, said that the duty of the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Verkhovna Rada is the protection of every citizen of Ukraine. “We save our citizens in any situation”. — she assured.

And the Consular Service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, according to Mr. Zayats, is working on every single case. The Ministry is doing everything possible to help our compatriots. It is about ensuring their procedural rights, the right to protection, translators, as well as the return of those sentenced to deprivation of liberty to their homeland. This means that all citizens of Ukraine can count on state assistance: guilty and innocent, on trumped-up charges, for a willful crime or by imprudence. Although, of course, in the priority are politically motivated sentences, ones sentenced to death and life imprisonment.


“In case of detention or arrest, citizens of Ukraine are provided with appropriate assistance in finding a qualified defender or providing free legal assistance, if this is provided by the legislation of the country in question. Consular officials monitor the conditions of detention, which must meet the requirements of hygiene and sanitation, the progress of the case, and, if necessary, take measures to restore the violated procedural and other rights. At the same time, employees of diplomatic and consular institutions of Ukraine are not subjects to the criminal or civil process and cannot participate in the consideration of cases as lawyers, defenders, permanent representatives of interests, etc.” (Details on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine).

According to Andrii Zayats, the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Justice intensified activities to conclude agreements on the transfer of convicted persons to serve their sentences in Ukraine.

Anton Korynevych, an international lawyer, said to Opinion: “If the efforts of the state apparatus and civil society will be united, we can achieve results. Indeed, such a partnership, joint work of diplomats, consuls, and human rights activists, can be very fruitful in addressing this issue”.

At the end of August, the 13th Meeting of Heads of Foreign Diplomatic Institutions of Ukraine will be held, with the participation of President Petro Poroshenko. It will touch upon the question of those Ukrainians, convicted abroad. Perhaps the process of releasing our compatriots from foreign prisons will accelerate, and real violators will be lucky to serve their sentences on their native side.

Do we need selectivity?

Opinion asked the well-known Ukrainians: “Should the state take care of each Ukrainian, convicted abroad, and who should deal with this issue first of all?”

Volodymyr Zhemchugov, a participant in the resistance of Russian aggression in the East of Ukraine, Hero of Ukraine:

“According to the legislation of Ukraine, the state of Ukraine is responsible for all citizens, who have a Ukrainian passport. And the Ministry of Foreign Affairs must take care of such people. In the Constitution of Ukraine, there is no division of people by classes or by categories, all citizens are equal. I think that the state should represent the interests of a certain person in court, and also perform all the functions assigned to it, in accordance with the statute of the Consular Service, including in the matter of transferring a person to serve a sentence to the territory of Ukraine”.

Olena Ivanovska, folklorist, teacher:

“Historically, the categories “Motherland” and “state of Ukraine” have a somewhat different semantic content. Our state is only at the stage of its emergence, and, like an unconscious child, has not yet formulated its axiology, where human life and human liberties would occupy the highest level in the value scale. But the events of recent years have shown the maturity of the civil society, the crystallization of passionaries. These are those people, who feel responsible for the fate of their land, sons, and daughters of the mother-Ukraine, they are working on the establishment of state institutions, in particular, human rights. The life of every Ukrainian is equal. It is worth and it is necessary to fight for it. When Ukraine demonstrates persistence in this process to the whole World when it defends justice for every “small” Ukrainian, returns him or her to the Motherland, provides legal support in foreign lands, then such a state will have a chance for all Ukrainians to truly become the Homeland”.

Oleg Chorny, film director, and media artist:

“The Kremlin hostages or citizens kidnapped and illegally condemned in Russia – a separate conversation. They are prisoners of the regime, and they must be fought for by all available means. As for others, the state is obliged to take care of the fate of all citizens, even if they are convicted of crimes in the territory of other states. The state must know what each citizen is punished for. It should provide a legal assistance. Because often the prosecution may be the result of unfavorable circumstances (a person, for example, could substitute) or is committed because of the banal ignorance of the laws of the country and the neglection of them. Especially, taking into account the low overall level of legal literacy of our citizens. Often those get into trouble, who took up questionable job offers. Like women and girls, in search of earnings fall into sexual slavery. The fate of all convicts, or those in distress, must first of all be dealt with by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and diplomats through foreign missions on the territory of other states. The Ombudsman, too. Of course, the work of human rights defenders and their initiatives should also be supported. Even when our citizens are legally convicted, the state must take care of them, be interested in the conditions of their detention and the state of health”.

By Viktor Tsvilikhovsky

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