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31 January, 2017  ▪  Maria Tomak

Returning the hostages

Freeing the Kremlin's prisoners as our main assignment for the year

The general veil of hybridity, uncertainty and understatement of the Russian-Ukrainian war applies, in particular, to the issue of hostages and prisoners. Just as in the war, the victims of this seemingly "hybrid" problem are very real people who are deprived of freedom and the right to a fair trial, subjected to torture and ill-treatment, and used by the Kremlin as a bargaining chip and "human shield" for their negotiating positions.

Despite isolated "happy endings", the general trend is more like "one step forward, two steps back": as three people are released, another six are "charged".

We must realise two things: firstly, there will be prisoners as long as a part of Ukrainian territory remains occupied and Russia continues to conventionally or unconventionally wage war against Ukraine. Secondly, the first point does not mean that Ukraine can afford to sit idly by. Quite the opposite – it demands that an effective response to the problem be found.

We have prepared a selection of trends that can be observed in 2016 events concerning the Kremlin's prisoners.

ONE STEP FORWARD: Individual releases

Over the past year, three prisoners have been returned to Ukraine through political negotiations: Nadiya Savchenko (in May), Hennadiy Afanasyev and Yuriy Soloshenko (both in June). They had been sentenced for "prohibited means and methods of waging war", "terrorism" and "espionage ", respectively. In addition, Yuriy Ilchenko, accused of extremism and inciting ethnic hatred, managed to escape from house arrest in Crimea. Cases in which negotiations were successfully completed are, unfortunately, the exception and not the rule. Moreover, due to the obvious and unconcealed participation of the odious Viktor Medvedchuk in the negotiation process, the price of his mediation remains unclear.


  • New captives

Meanwhile, the total number of prisoners continues to grow. October 2016, for example, was marked by a number of new arrests. The most high-profile was the case of UkrInform news agency journalist Roman Sushchenko, who, according to his lawyer Mark Feygin, was lured to Moscow by Russian special services, detained and accused of espionage. Due to the classified nature of this category of cases, we will not be able to find out the details of proceedings now or after conviction.

In that same month, another series of searches swept Crimean Tatars' homes in Crimea and ended with five new arrests (Emil Dzhamadenov, Rustem Ismayilov, Aider Saledinova and the Abdullayev brothers) and a fourth "case of the Crimean Muslims".

RELATED ARTICLE: Persecution of defenders for Crimean Tatars, activists in the annexed Crimea escalates with new detentions, arrests, searches of homes and offices of lawyers

Earlier, in August, the FSB reported the detention of a so-called subversive group in the Crimea. The transportation of two defendants, Yevhen Panov and Andriy Zakhtiy, to Moscow's Lefortovo Prison, demonstrates the seriousness of the FSB's intentions. However, activists from the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union have stated that there is evidence Panov has been tortured, which is, in fact, a common denominator in most political cases against Ukrainian citizens.

All these FSB and Investigative Committee stories indicate that, despite the relative calm on the line of contact, the war is continuing.

  • New old prisoners revealed

Mykola Shyptur, a Maidan activist who went to Crimea in March 2014 to support the civil resistance to the occupation, was captured by the self-proclaimed Sevastopol self-defence and subsequently sentenced to nine years in prison for alleged attempted murder – de facto in self-defence against pro-Russian activists. Even a superficial legal analysis of the case shows that the verdict was politically motivated. In addition, the circumstances of Shyptur's detention, as well as those of other Maidan activists, the extensive media coverage with the "correct emphasis" ("the Banderites are invading") and attempts to force the prisoner to state that he is a member of "Sentsov's Group" leave no doubt that the lion's share of criminal cases against Ukrainians are intended to be used solely for propaganda purposes.

RELATED ARTICLE: Crimean Tatar leader, MP Mustafa Dzhemilev on expectations for Crimea and Russia

However, this story is surprising for another reason: Shyptur's case remained unnoticed in Ukraine for almost three years, despite the fact that his wife reached out to all possible public institutions. In the chaos at the end of the revolution, the occupation of Crimea and the beginning of the war, Shyptur may not be the only overlooked victim. One can only guess how many more such cases were missed by Ukraine.

  • New categories of victims from the war and occupation that were previously unknown, but should also be taken into consideration

When we talk about the Kremlin's prisoners, we mean those held for political reasons in Russia and Crimea, as well as civilian hostages, and Ukrainian servicemen in the DNR/LNR-controlled territory. In fact, the scale of the disaster is even larger.

Indeed, thousands of Ukrainian citizens have been moved from detention facilities in the temporarily occupied Crimea in order to serve their sentences in Russian prisons. Generally, Russia is guided by its own logic and "Crimea is ours" worldview, but in terms of international humanitarian law, these prisoner transfers are not only illegal, but could also be a war crime. Unlawfully displaced persons are not, of course, political prisoners, but their rights are being seriously violated in the same way.

Another problem, which has so far remained in the shadows, is the massive implication of Ukrainians in the Russian illegal drug trade through deception, coercion, threats and intimidation. According to our estimates, there may be about 2,000 such cases, although for various reasons it is extremely difficult to determine the exact number. Many of those in Russian detention centres on the corresponding charges (or sentences) potentially can – and should be – considered the victims of human trafficking and labour exploitation crimes.



Russia is trying to assert its authority and put fear into Crimeans not only by flooding the peninsula with intelligence agents and large police vans, but also by politically persecuting those who disagree with the "party line". Above all, this means Crimean Tatars. Today, they make up the largest number of the Kremlin's prisoners (23 out of 37).

The risks are also rising due to the presence of two repressive trends in Crimea: the general Russian one (the civil rights and freedoms situation is deteriorating on an almost daily basis in the RF) and a specific Crimean one, which is directly aimed at the subjugation of the peninsula (e.g. the prohibition of the Mejlis).

However, the arrest of journalist Roman Sushchenko in Moscow shows that Ukrainian citizens cannot feel safe not only in the so-called grey areas, but also in Russia itself. Moreover, the risk linked to "Ukrainian cases" also applies to Russian citizens. Moscow journalist Ksenia Babich, a citizen of the Russian Federation, has been summoned for police questioning and had her flat searched several times due to the fact that she once studied in the same year group as Right Sector press secretary Artem Skoropadsyi. Criminal proceedings are continuing regarding this organization, which is prohibited in Russia.

The lack of systemic work in Ukraine

Ukrainian officials assert that they bring up the release of hostages and illegally detained persons at all possible negotiations. At the same time, while seeing the inefficacy of the "Minsk and Normandy formats" in the context of bringing prisoners home, Ukraine fails to devise and initiate other possible formats devoted to this humanitarian issue. It is clear that the people themselves are not valuable to the Kremlin and that the purpose of forming a group of hostages is to squeeze serious political concessions out of Ukraine and the West (perhaps they will be lucky enough to get some stars of transnational crime, arms trade and drug trafficking, ideologically close to the Russian regime, out of Western prisons). But neither this circumstance, nor the necessity of classifying a large part of the negotiation process negates the need for Ukrainian officials to report any progress on the exchange issue to the relatives and lawyers of prisoners.

RELATED ARTICLE: Historian Gulnara Bekirova on the history of the peninsula and Crimean Tatars

Fragmentation and a lack of systematic thinking also concerns the introduction of sanctions and their promotion outside Ukraine. These sanctions should cover the authors of fabricated cases and those who torture and intimidate Ukrainian prisoners. The Savchenko-Sentsov list must without fail be extended with the names of those responsible for fabricating the Karpiuk-Klykh case and refusing medical care to Stanislav Klykh and Oleksandr Kostenko, as well as the dreamers from the Investigative Committee who thought up "war criminal Lytvynov", the "terrorists" Zeitullayev, Saifullayev, Primov, Vaitov and so on.


Perhaps, this should be seen as our main assignment for the next year. While we are hardly able to influence Russia's hostage taking within the occupied territories, we simply must develop an effective system for responding to this problem. It must stand on two pillars: a coordinated response inside the country (from the provision of proper legal aid to the opening of criminal proceedings against the perpetrators of repression) and effective foreign policy pressure on Russia, which should not only be based on outraged statements from Ukraine, but also backed up by targeted sanctions against the people in uniforms and judge robes who, while faking cases against Ukrainians and practicing the most advanced sadistic methods, spend their holidays in Paris and on the Spanish coast.

Maria Tomak is a journalist, activist and coordinator of the Media Initiative for Human Rights

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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