On June 14, it was a year since the last exchange of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia took place. Nothing has happened in all that time to make a swap more likely
One year ago, President Poroshenko’s official social page announced: “Yuriy Soloshenko and Ghennadiy Afanasiyev are on board a Ukrainian jet as we speak and leaving Moscow for Ukraine. We’ve fought so long to reach this goal!” And on June 14, 2016, the two men did indeed return to their homeland from Russian captivity. They had been exchanged for the organizers of the “People’s Council of Bessarabia,” Olena Hlishchynska and Vitaliy Didenko. Prior to that, Ukraine exchanged Russian special forces officers Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Yevgheni Yerofeyev for Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko. With this, the process of returning Ukrainian captives ended. True, Mustafa Dzhemilev’s son Haiser returned from Russian prison, as did Yuriy Ilchenko, who was accused of extremism. But these few cases can hardly be described as an “exchange process.” Haiser Dzhemilev had already served his sentence, for all intents and purposes, while Ilchenko fled from Crimea to mainland Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the number of Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars who have been trapped by Russia’s forces agencies has only grown. Take the case of the “Crimean diversionary group,” which includes at least 9 men: Yevhen Panov, Andriy Zakhtiy, Volodymyr Prysych, Rydvan Suleimanov, Dmytro Shtyblikov, Oleksiy Bessarabov, Volodymyr Dudko, Hlib Shabliy, and Oleksiy Stohniy. The nine were arrested in two phases, the first four in August 2016, while other five found themselves behind bars in November. By then, Prysych had already been handed down a sentence of three years in prison under Art. 228 of the Russian Federation’s Criminal Code—illegal acquisition, possession, transport, preparation and processing of narcotic substances.
Of course, this sentence had nothing at all to do with the reason for his arrest, which was “sabotage.” Prysych himself during his final statement in court declared that the accusation of possession and transportation of narcotic substances was completely fabricated by the FSB. He explained that the forbidden substances were planted and that he was forced to sign the protocol with his supposed confession in order to avoid an even more serious fabricated crime.
In addition to “sabotage and diversion,” it appears that Russia hasn’t forgotten about the cases where people have been accused of “espionage.” Under these articles, Russia tried the now-released Soloshenko, as well as Valentyn Vyhivskiy and Viktor Shur, who remain imprisoned in Russia. At the beginning of October 2016, yet another “suspect” appeared on the horizon: UkrInform journalist Roman Sushchenko. Sushchenko had been the new agency’s Paris correspondent since 2010 and worked in Strasbourg. He decided to go to Russia to visit family and on October 2, he was due back in Ukraine. Instead, he turned up in the infamous Lefortovo jail. Immediately after his arrest, the International and European Federations of Journalists and the European Alliance of News Agencies Council turned to the Kremlin with a demand to release the journalist. Reporters Without Borders added their weight to the demand. Official agencies in Ukraine also argued that the journalist could not have been a spy. Russia, of course, ignored the statements, demands and appeals, leaving Sushchenko behind bars. Instead the FSB insisted that Sushchenko was a “career spy” and was supposedly gathering information about the RF Armed Forces. The Kremlin’s response was that arresting the journalist was “a standard operation by the security service.”
Mark Feygin, the Russian lawyer famed for his work with Pussy Riot and Nadiya Savchenko, took it upon himself to represent the Ukrainian journalist. In May, he told Ukrinform journalists that the materials in the case had already extended to some 10 volumes, while investigative activity, in his words, was in a state of suspended animation. In the eight months since Sushchenko was taken and imprisoned, his defense tried to change the preventive measures in vain: the decision of the Russian “court” has not been altered.
In addition to Sushchenko, it’s quite likely that freelance Radio Svoboda (RFE/RL) journalist Mykola Semena will end up sentenced. In April 2016, the FSB filed a criminal case against him on the basis of an article he had written that supposedly included “calls to violate the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.” At the end of January, the journalist was handed down an indictment for “separatism.” It seems that Russia’s security services found indications of a call to violate the territorial integrity of the RF in an article called “Blockade: The first mandatory step to freeing Crimea.” This case has already moved to court hearings. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry has demanded on more than one occasion that Russia stop the investigation into Semena and Sushchenko, most recently on June 6, Journalists’ Day.
“Since this is Journalists’ Day, we demand, once again, that the Russian Federation stop its political persecution of journalists Sushchenko and Semena,” said MFA Spokesperson Mariana Betsa on her Twitter page.
In addition to the persecution of Ukrainians in Crimea, pressure continues on Crimean Tatars with the application of anti-terrorist legislation, including with reference to possible members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is banned in Russia, and participants in the demonstration outside the Crimean legislature in February 2014. An entire series of cases is still going before the “courts.” Meanwhile, quite a few Crimean Tatars have already been sentenced. Ruslan Zeitullayev, who was involved in the case of Crimean Muslims, was sentenced to 12 years hard labor for organizing a local center of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Crimea, although the organization remains quite legal in Ukraine. He protested openly against the persecution of his fellow Crimeans and went on a hunger strike several times. Zeitullayev demanded that the RF government stop persecuting Crimean Tatars for “extremism” and “terrorism,” that it release other defendants in the Crimean Muslim case, and that it allow members of the press to visit him. However, the persecutions continue.
What’s more, this year has made it obvious that not only activists with a clearly pro-Ukrainian position are now under threat of persecution, but anyone who assisted them, including after their arrests. One highly-publicized incident is the arrest of Emil Kurbedinov, the lawyer defending Crimean Muslims. At the end of January, the defender was going to one of the activists for a search when a patrol stopped him. Eventually he was sent to the court where he was subjected to 10 days of detention. In addition, the lawyer’s office was searched and his computers and other equipment seized.
Not long ago, the FSB tried to detain another lawyer, Nikolai Polozov, who is defending Ilma Ymerov, in order to interrogate him. Rights activists spoke about pressure being put on lawyers working in Crimea and trying to defend Crimean Tatars. Beyond this, from time to time, news comes out about the latest searches of activist apartments in Crimea.
“This year, the investigations have moved to a different level,” says Oleksandra Matviychuk, coordinator at Euromaidan SOS and an activist in the Let My People Go campaign. “Earlier we could see a growing number of cases of political pressure on people, whereas now we are seeing persecutions of those who help the political prisoners: their lawyers, those who bring them parcels, and so on. This means that the barometer of unfreedom in the occupied peninsula has reached a critical level.”
Right now, the rights activists’ list has 44 names on it, but there could turn out to be more.
“Our list has the names of 44 individuals who are behind bars for political reasons in occupied Crimea and Russia,” adds Matviychuk,” and we always emphasize ‘at least.’ Not long ago I spoke with some Crimeans and they confirmed that the number of such people has grown but rights activists simply haven’t come across them yet. We’re about to look at the situation more closely and to verify this information.”
However, since June 2016, not only has the number of political prisoners grown. On October 12, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) passed two resolutions on Ukraine that are connected to Crimea and Donbas. First, PACE condemned the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula by Russia and confirmed serious violations of human rights in Crimea. Secondly, it emphasized the “independence of the courts,” and the persecution and pressure bring put on Crimean Tatars living there. PACE went on to demand that repressions against residents who remained loyal to Ukraine be stopped, that the Mejlis be allowed to function properly as the representative body of the Crimean Tatars, and that the movement of prisoners from Crimea to Russian Federation territory cease.
At the same time, a 2017 UN report on human rights notes a huge number of “undesirable trends” in this sphere: ignoring the guarantee of a fair and just trial, using backdated criminal laws, and beating individuals who are detained. The UN also announced that it is now registering cases where people imprisoned in Crimea are being moved to jails in Russia, which is in violation of international humanitarian laws.
At this time, however, it looks unlikely that resolutions or appeals will actively influence the Russian government. What’s more, in the year since the last prisoner exchange, it’s not even known who the potential candidates are for a swap with Moscow. It looks like, so far, there has been no positive breakthrough in freeing political prisoners in Russia. The best example of this is filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, who is into his fourth year behind bars now. Famous actors, directors and human rights activists have all spoken on behalf of Sentsov, but so far the results are pretty much zero. Nevertheless, lawyers, activists and defenders continue the fight to release the Kremlin’s captives. It’s going to be a long and dirty fight.