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11 April, 2013

Political Prisoners: Big and Small

Ukraine does have political prisoners. This fact is acknowledged by everyone today except for supporters of the Party of Regions, the Communists and the most inveterate ideologues of the "everyone-in-politics-is-bad" position.

Some were forced to flee Ukraine seeking political asylum because they would end up in jail otherwise. These political prisoners are known both in Ukraine and abroad, to foreign journalists and government officials. The latter are demanding, at a very high level, the release of political prisoners and a stop to the persecution of members of the opposition, in other words, abandoning the practice of selective justice.

READ ALSO: A Prisoner of Conscience?

But here is a problem: does anyone have any idea how many there are? The names of Tymoshenko and Lutsenko have been on everyone’s lips both in Ukraine and abroad for a long time. And many who have sought asylum are also well-known, including Arsen Avakov, Bohdan Danylyshyn and Yulia Tymoshenko's husband, Oleksandr Tymoshenko. Avakov has been elected to parliament and has now returned to Ukraine legally, making it now much harder to put him in prison. Lutsenko has been released, Tymoshenko may follow and her husband may be given guarantees… Does this mean that the problem of selective justice in Ukraine and the issue of political prisoners will disappear on their own?

I am afraid they will not. To the contrary, there is every reason to expect things will become even worse. The essence of the current regime will not change dramatically because of a few magnanimous gestures on its part. Moreover, mass protests against government policies are continuing and will continue throughout the country and as usual, they will crescendo with the approach of the presidential election. And how else can these be thwarted if not by targeted attacks on local activists?

READ ALSO: Three in a Boat

Even today after the government has amnestied Lutsenko, are not the regime's political opponents under continued pressure? Are there not more political prisoners behind bars, both convicted and those who are only getting ready to face the “fair” Ukrainian court?

Journalist and MP Mykola Kniazhytsky has written in his blog about one such prisoner, Liudmyla Nikitkina. She was arrested on 24 July 2012 — that is, before the election. She worked as the deputy head of the election headquarters of the United Opposition in Pervomaisk, Mykolaiv Oblast. She was charged, of course, with criminal, rather than political, wrongdoings which she allegedly committed as the financial director of the Kornatskys’ farm business. Arkadiy Kornatsky ran for a parliament seat in the region, and his company is still the target of a very powerful Donetsk-based group. (I will not call any names, because any mention of this family’s surname may lead to imprisonment. However, all the relevant information can be found on the Internet.) “Her entire guilt was that she cooperated with Arkadiy Kornatsky, a candidate MP, whose victory was illegitimately stolen by the authorities,” Kniazhytsky stresses. “Pat Cox and Alexander Kwasniewski do not mention the political prisoner Nikitkina. Unfortunately, we are not doing much to help this courageous and educated woman who is suffering in the Lukianivska pre-trial detention unit without adequate medical assistance either. She may have more right than anyone else in Ukraine to be called a prisoner of conscience.”

READ ALSO: Decision Time

But is Nikitkina the only one we must remember? Who else can be categorized as a political prisoner?  The “Vasylkiv terrorists”, the men who disfigured the Lenin monument in Kyiv, the people who were convinced in Sumy for graffiti which resembled Viktor Yanukovych with a red bullet mark on his forehead? These are cases that require, at the very least, serious attention and a professional assessment from the human rights community and the mass media.

So far, only the Kharkiv Human Rights Group seems to be monitoring other recent political repression. The group opened a section on its website titled “Political repression in modern Ukraine”. But this is clearly not enough. Civic society activists and true opposition politicians should remember the experience of Soviet-era dissidents and draw up a similar list of all political prisoners and politically repressed citizens to share with Western journalists and politicians at every opportunity. This is what the renowned Andrei Sakharov did: look at his Nobel Prize speech – it includes the names of many, many repressed dissidents, a number of whom were Ukrainians. Sakharov's work produced a certain result in his time, and a similar approach will work today. We need to be saving courageous people who have become victims of the regime. And we need to do it, not by currying favour with the authorities, but by forcing them to make concessions under pressure from the Ukrainian and international community.

Incidentally, the Moscow-based magazine The New Times has brought back the “Chronicle of current affairs” which records events related to political repression on a daily basis. Similar, type-written chronicles were circulated in samizdat editions by dissidents in 1968-83. I pray that we will not have to publish such chronicles, but we must exert every effort now to free all political prisoners without exception, both “big” and “small”.


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