Interviewed by Bohdan Butkevych
Presidential envoy for the peaceful settlement of the conflict in Donbas and member of the humanitarian subgroup in the Minsk Negotiating Team talks to The Ukrainian Week about prisoner exchange, the amnesty for militants and Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia.
What is the current situation with prisoners held by the separatists in the occupied areas of Donbas?
This is a very difficult question to which there are no simple answers. I can't afford to make light of the answer, because there are human lives at stake. My phone is full of text messages from the wives, mothers and sisters of our soldiers. There are chances for their release – I guarantee that we are doing everything in our power to make this happen. In fact, we will soon present the final report of the Minsk Negotiating Team, in which we will clearly talk about everything related to the release of prisoners. We use a list that is compiled and controlled by the relevant Interagency Centre of Security Bureau (SBU – Ed.). This list currently contains 140 people, including more than 50 civilians. The militants really try to blackmail us with the amnesty issue and always understate the number of people held hostage. Only recently, we've sent 21 queries regarding the fate of specific individuals, specifying the circumstances in which they were captured. We haven't received a response to any of them, which is the most striking evidence possible regarding the moral and human qualities of the people dealing with this issue on the other side. It’s clear that this behaviour isn't even the position of the DPR activists themselves, but their leaders from the Kremlin, which behaves like a real terrorist, blackmailing us with hostages. They don't give the Red Cross mission access to our prisoners, which isn't even the case for prisons in Syria, Iraq and other countries that have been fighting for years.
What about the Ukrainians held in Russia?
Just officially at least nine Ukrainians are being held in Russia itself. These are political prisoners – hostages captured by a terrorist state. We work on the diplomatic front so that the people who were taken from Donbas or Crimea with bags on their heads – and the whole world – understand what's happening. When people were forcibly given Russian passports to be tried under Russian law, like Oleh Sentsov. We have to prove that these things cannot be accepted as the norm, because then Russia will start to kidnap and torture citizens of other countries too. That's why our political prisoners in Russia are a challenge for the whole world. We use different methods to try to get them released. For example, everyone knows about the exchange of our hero "cyborg" Andriy "Rahman" Hrechanov for a Russian army major, captured by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. But in order for this exchange to take place, the president pardoned this major, who, I remind you, had been sentenced to 14 years in prison. Can you see the legal conflict here? The Minsk Agreements demand the release of all those held illegally.
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Accordingly, all the soldiers and civilians who were captured and tortured by militants in the occupied part of Donbas are illegally detained. At the same time, there are no people illegally detained on Ukrainian territory in principle – there are only offenders who have committed an offense and have had criminal proceedings opened against them. As for slavery, I don't have any information about that and can't afford to speak in terms of rumours. But we have two lists: hostages and missing persons. Ukraine as a state is obliged to find the bodies and identify them, or at least establish the circumstances of death, for those on the second list. Today, it includes 762 people – around 400 civilians, the rest are soldiers. Representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross finally took part in the last meeting of the humanitarian subgroup of the Minsk Negotiating Team; we had given them the lists the day before. Then after that, representatives of the occupied parts of Donbas said for the first time that they had started working on the missing people lists and had established the fate of 63 of them. We are now waiting for their names and will carefully check the information on each of them. And we expect the Red Cross to act as an apolitical, unbiased mediator in the occupied territories. The militants have apparently agreed to this. We also constantly work with volunteers to find information about prisoners, because they often have access to the occupied territory. If it's possible to secure the release of prisoners on a lower level than Minsk, we will, of course, take part in such negotiations.
Have there been cases when a person considered missing was actually a deserter or even voluntarily went over to the enemy?
It's war and anything can happen. Of course, you only feel like speaking about the heroes. Again, in our negotiations we only use the information that is updated weekly by the Security Service. In particular, about the people that it was possible to find or release. According to recent figures, that's about 2,900 people. This includes both the dead and those among them who, well, were found under different circumstances. I think you know what I mean.
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Is Ukraine ready for an "all for all" exchange?
If you're talking about changing the measure of preventive detention, then we're already doing that. But understand that the other side often makes paradoxical demands. For example, we recently got a request to release a man who was convicted of murder in 2003 and has already served 11 out of 15-years imprisonment. That is to say, people who have no relation to the current situation are often included on the exchange lists because they are mates with the bandits. Of course, we're still open to any possible options that would free our people. However, it doesn't always work out. For example, we've been fighting for the release of one seriously injured man for two months: two amputated legs, as well as an injured eye and abdomen injuries. We prepared everything for the operation, his wife was in an ambulance waiting to take him away. The militants refused and started to tell us that he's not there at all.
Then, when we go back to them with solid facts, they argue that, for example, the Red Cross apparently hasn't visited all the prisoners in Ukraine and that they want to see all the detained militants before giving us access to the wounded man. I'm telling you this so you understand the sort of bandits we have to deal with. They very often agree to give us a prisoner only when he is near death. One recently died who was released back in July – he was severely tortured and never recovered from the stab wounds. When they hand half-dead people over to us, the militants hope to absolve themselves of responsibility for their torture and death. I'm really scared for the inhabitants of the occupied parts of Donbas who have fallen hostage to such people. It should be understood that under the Minsk Agreements, Moscow should use all possible levers of influence on the militants for their implementation.
If we evaluate the Minsk Agreements in general, have the militants and Russia complied with anything at all?
They have not fulfilled any requirements of the Minsk Agreements. I repeat – none at all. The only thing that has been achieved is certain progress regarding the ceasefire. All the same, the Grad rockets are almost never fired, whereas before, when heavy artillery was consistently used, we lost 40-60 of our best people each time. Now they are mostly killed by mines, as well as reconnaissance and sabotage groups. That is to say, the open fighting has died down a little bit. We managed to implement some humanitarian projects to help specific people in the occupied territory. Our mine clearing work is also important. But in general, the militants do not comply with the agreements. Although it should be understood that Minsk II is still working, because the sanctions against Russia are tied to it. We clearly use facts to prove to the world that Russia has not fulfilled any of the requirements, so sanctions must be continued. The whole world should stop Putin together, and the Minsk Agreements help us with this. Who will be next: Belarus, Kazakhstan, Poland, the Baltic States? Nobody in the world can feel safe next to a country that cynically violates all the norms of international law.
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What is the situation with the amnesty that the militants demand?
Today, we are actively studying similar experiences in other countries, such as Croatia and Indonesia. But we have to understand that in those cases it was an internal conflict, while in ours it’s a war provoked from outside. We'll still be forced to comply with this provision of the Minsk Agreements, because we want peace. But a key debate on the amnesty law will take place in Parliament, which will decide on the matter. I can declare that no document concerning an amnesty was discussed or drawn up by the political or humanitarian Minsk subgroups. Roman Bezsmertnyi and Volodymyr Horbulin from the political subgroup can confirm this. In general, Ukraine's position remains unchanged: an amnesty would only be possible after stabilisation of the situation, the disarmament of gangs and a sustainable ceasefire. Moreover, exclusively for those who did not commit serious crimes or crimes against humanity.
Iryna Herashchenko was born in 1971 in Cherkasy. She graduated from the Faculty of Journalism at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv (1993), the Diplomatic Academy of Ukraine (2011) and the law faculty of Shevchenko University (2012). From 1993 to 2003 worked in journalism and as spokesperson of the Directorate of the International Fund for Investment, in 2003-2006 – as spokesperson for Viktor Yushchenko, leader of Our Ukraine and later President of Ukraine. Ms. Herashchenko was head of news agency UNIAN in 2006-2007. MP of the 6th-8th convocations (Our Ukraine, UDAR, Petro Poroshenko Bloc). On June 17, 2014, Petro Poroshenko appointed her Presidential Envoy for the Peaceful Settlement of the Conflict in Eastern Ukraine.