Every day in the prison of the Omsk colony they make prisoners sing the Russian anthem. Ukrainian Yevhen Panov refused to sing and work for the enemy. Our political prisoners serving sentences in prisons of the aggressor on unfair charges are not given the opportunity to be treated, to communicate with their relatives, they are physically and morally humiliated. But they do not give up, and still, find an opportunity to engage in creativity. Is there any hope that the Ukrainian prisoners will soon return home?
The number of prisoners has increased
When in December 2017 the most large-scale prisoners swap took place (74 hostages returned to the Ukrainian territory from “DPR” and “LPR”), it seemed that the ice had been broken. But attempts to release other captives in 2018 were unsuccessful, despite hopes for the election of the President of the Russian Federation and for the World Cup in Russia. Since the beginning of 2019, the attempts to return anyone from the captivity failed too. Ukrainian sailors, captured by Russians on November 25 of the last year in the Kerch Strait area, were added to the captured military and Kremlin political prisoners.
Ihor Kotelyanets, the chairman of the NGO Association of Relatives of Political Prisoners of the Kremlin, reminded Opinion that in 2017 there was an exchange of prisoners of war, who are the subject of discussion of the Minsk agreements. But for political prisoners, civilian hostages, there is no negotiation platform at all.
“If you do not take into account Ahtem Chyigoz and Ilmi Umerov, the last such liberations were in 2016, when they liberated Gennadiy Afanasyev and Yuriy Soloshenko,” continued Mr. Kotelyanets. “Why do not we consider Chiygoz and Umerov? There were personal agreements between the Mejlis and the Turkish president, and not so much with the assistance of the Ukrainian authorities.”
“At the end of 2018, at least 57 people were deprived of their liberty for political reasons,” Olha Skrypnyk, the coordinator of the Crimean human rights group, told to Opinion. “This figure did not include 24 Ukrainian sailors, they, according to international law, are the prisoners of war. We are talking about 22 sailors and 2 employees of the Security Service of Ukraine, who are in Lefortovo jail now.”
The deputy chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, Ilmi Umerov, stated, now in the Crimean prisons, Russians are keeping more than 80 political prisoners. The Russian Federation is awaiting the results of the presidential elections in Ukraine, and it is unlikely that the issue of the release of prisoners will soon be tackled. The arrest of the sailors was extended almost to the end of April, their appeals were rejected. Olha Skrypnyk and Ihor Kotelyanets stressed the election factor. Any success of the President of Ukraine would mean an increase in the electoral support, and it is not profitable for Russia.
“I don’t think that the Ukrainian authorities did everything they could,” Mr. Kotelyanets assured. “Even on June 8 last year, at a meeting with relatives, the President promised us to create a coordinating council under the Administration of the President for the release of political prisoners. Unfortunately, the promise is still not fulfilled. At the same time, the President promised to call Putin and raise this issue. He did it the day after our meeting, but this is not enough. On the one hand, political prisoners are heroes, and they are beneficial to any government, while behind bars. And when they are released, there is no topic on which to promote. On the other hand, I think that this is a priority issue for the authorities, although, indeed, both the President and Iryna Herashchenko (the commissioner appointed by the President for the peaceful arrangement of the conflict in Donbas ‒ Ed.) sincerely do it, and we have received a lot of support from them. ”
In a recent interview for Opinion, Ms. Herashchenko noted one of the largest merits of her ‒ the release of hostages and the laws, related to the support of their families. About 200 people were released in the framework of the Minsk Group. And on her Facebook page, Iryna noted that Poroshenko talked with Putin about the hostages twice in the summer: “With the proposal to the Russian Federation to release our political prisoners from Russian prisons, all our hostages from the occupied territories. We are ready to immediately transfer to the Russian Federation all convicted Russian terrorists, whom the Russian Federation and Putin do not recognize and have forgotten. The President and his team made these proposals dozens of times.”
On February 13, Iryna Herashchenko wrote that at the last meeting of the trilateral contact group in Minsk, the Ukrainians repeated the demand to immediately release sailors ‒ prisoners of war ‒without any prerequisites. “Once again, the RF was handed over a proposal to pick up 25 of its citizens and offered various formats for dismissal: wide 25/25 (Russians for Kremlin political prisoners), and 19/72, suggested several other formats. As the Russian Federation is not ready to take back all its people, it was proposed several narrow formats, just to unlock the process to begin with the release of those, who need medical treatment.”
On February 20, in an address to the UN General Assembly, Petro Poroshenko urged the world to redouble its efforts to free Ukrainian hostages (he reported about more than 70 prisoners). According to the President of Ukraine, last year our country submitted 13 proposals for the exchange of the hostages to the Russian Federation. However, Russia ignored them.
Torment in the torture chambers
There is a special attitude to Ukrainian captives in Russia. Some of our prisoners in prisons do not have the opportunity to be treated normally, to see their relatives, consuls, human rights activists. The health of one of the youngest prisoners Pavlo Hryb has deteriorated, as has been repeatedly reported by the Ombudswoman of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine Lyudmyla Denisova. Soon they will read the verdict to Pavlo. On February 18, the prisoner’s father, Ihor Hryb, asked the journalists to pay attention to one of the last meetings of the North Caucasian District Military Court. It lasted for… two minutes. There was neither a prosecutor nor a translator, Pavlo was brought with high temperature. The prisoner’s father believes that the meeting was disrupted specifically because of the presence of the Ukrainian professor Vasyl Prytula as the witness, who had treated the guy since childhood. The professor knows about a real illness because Russian doctors claim that Pavlo is healthy.
“Pavlo needed medical help even before the abduction (by the Russian special services in Belarus ‒ Ed.), the operation was supposed to be in September 2017,” Ihor told to Opinion. “For a year and a half behind bars, a healthy person would become ill, when they beat and humiliate you. Pavlo said that he could not attend the last three meetings, because he had a stomach ache. Hands were shaking, coordination was disturbed, possible symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Vasyl Prytula notes that blood does not flow to the brain as it should, and anything can develop. And all this in 20 years.”
According to Ihor Hryb, there is no communication with the son. We are talking about the FSB detention facility with a very strict regime. Mother visits Pavlo, but she sees him only in the hall, they do not give them an opportunity to embrace, or to communicate. True, in December and January, they allowed meetings with tinted windows and talking through a telephone receiver. The next trial is scheduled for March 4.
Almost all political prisoners have health problems. Oleg Sentsov, Volodymyr Balukh, Oleksandr Kolchenko, and others went through the hunger strike. The reason is not in the very desire of Russians to treat prisoners. Often, the state of health of Ukrainians is hidden or given as satisfactory. The Crimean Tatar activist Edem Bekirov, a resident of Kherson region, detained by Russian security forces at the entrance to the Crimea, has serious problems with health.
“The state of health is very difficult, Bekirov even before the imprisonment had problems, disability, his leg is amputated,” explained Olha Skrypnyk. “When he got to the detention facility, for some time he was not given appropriate medications, he had no ability to bandage, he did it himself, what is unacceptable. Then the aggravation began because the medications that were given to him were contrary to what the doctors prescribed when he was free. Under such conditions, Bekirov should not be in the detention facility. The Russian authorities have every reason to transfer him even to home arrest, but they do not consciously do this, which indicates political persecution.”
It was suspected that the sailor Andrii Eider was infected with hepatitis B in the detention facility, but the information was not confirmed. Volodymyr Ariev, the Chairman of the Permanent Delegation of the Parliament of Ukraine in PACE, called on the European colleagues to monitor the observance of the rights of Ukrainian sailors recognized as prisoners of war by the Parliamentary Assembly, but not the Russian Federation.
“Recently, I asked them to respond to the lack of medical care, necessary for wounded sailors,” the MP said. “And only then the Russian ombudswoman Moskalkova brought herself down to Lefortovo, where they hold our sailors, and admitted that they need help. Lyudmyla Denisova is monitoring the situation now. We keep the issue under control. Another thing is that Russia doesn’t care about all the calls. However, for the global community, having a single voice it is the basis, the reason to introduce additional sanctions in case of failure of these calls.”
On February 18, EU ministers determined the “Azov package” of support for Ukraine. In Europe, they plan to extend sanctions against the Russian Federation, since they do not see positive steps on the part of the Kremlin in the execution of the Minsk agreements. According to the EU High Representative Federika Mogherini, new sanctions may be imposed over the next few weeks.
The transportation of political prisoners is alarming. Volodymyr Balukh is transported to different places without informing his relatives and lawyers. Yevhen Panov was taken to the sixth colony in Omsk, where in the autumn of 2018 prisoners were on strike because of the abuse of the administration.
“Every day in this colony they force to sing the Russian anthem and not only the citizens of the Russian Federation. This brings great pleasure to these beasts,” said Ihor Kotelyanets. “Human rights activist Vira Honcharova came to Yevhen Panov and he warned her that he was not going to sing. Also, he refused to work on their sawmills. While there is no communication with Yevhen, he is on quarantine. Lawyers from Moscow will go to him, and we will try to order a phone call in the weeks following quarantine.”
Despite the difficulties, our captives do not lose faith. Pavlo Hryb read the book in Ukrainian “Svyatoslav” by Semen Sklyarenko, sent to him. Oleg Sentsov is writing prose. And Roman Sushchenko creates pictures with the help of tea, onion peel, ketchup, washing powder. One of them, with the image of St. Sophia Cathedral, was presented by the daughter of Mr. Roman to the Primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine Metropolitan Epiphanius. The exhibitions of Sushchenko’s works were held in Warsaw and Paris.
However, the exchange or release of Ukrainian prisoners is still hardly possible before the completion of the presidential, and even parliamentary elections. It is not profitable for Putin, who can cut this Gordian knot. But provocative proposals are coming.
“With an unexpected proposal to become a mediator in the negotiations on the “all for all” formula, Viktor Yanukovych spoke at a press conference,” Olha Kurnosova, a Russian emigration politician, said to Opinion. “Of course, this is an initiative of the Kremlin, and Yanukovych only broadcasts it. The Kremlin is trying to get political dividends from the exchange. This is the greatest difficulty that Petro Poroshenko will face. Only Iryna Herashchenko commented on Viktor Yanukovych’s proposal; I did not see any other comments. We’ll see if it will play into the hands of any candidate interested in the Kremlin during the presidential election campaign. Maybe this will happen during the parliamentary campaign. It is a very unpleasant situation for Ukraine that is why the Kremlin is creating it.”
“The most efficient way to resolve the issue is for the current Government to win the election and show Putin that Ukraine is not turning away from its way,” said Volodymyr Ariev. “In Russia, they hope that Ukraine will change the vector, and the next government will be at least softer. Therefore, Ukraine must resist Russian expansion and attempts to impose on it a future that they see in the Kremlin. Otherwise, we will not be respected. Now, this whole story has been paused precisely because of the elections, in which the Kremlin expects to receive loyal individuals, who can giggle or kneel. Therefore, the fate of our captives also depends on the choice of Ukrainian citizens at the presidential and parliamentary elections.”
Prisoners of war and political prisoners can be returned not only by political means. It is necessary to change the format of the negotiations. They should move from the political plane to the humanitarian. One should move away from emotions and accusations, and focus on the essence of the problem, and the search for sane ways out of it. We should attract specialists from abroad.
“Not to allow politicians to negotiate, it should be professional conflictologists, security specialists,” Ihor Kotelyanets is convinced. “It is the politicization of the issue that makes it difficult to reach an agreement. When the official, no matter how he is concerned with the fate of political prisoners, begins to demand very emotionally, then this game is not in favor of the prisoners. And it is in the favor of the electorate, who likes when the aggressor is called expletives. Some European politicians, during the meetings unofficially said that in fact, this question is not so difficult, and it would be possible to negotiate if the Ukrainian side is more interested.”
By Viktor Tsvilihovsky