For Ukrainians incarcerated in the occupied territories and in the Russian Federation itself, things could get much worse in 2018. Only serious international pressure is likely to make Moscow release these political prisoners
On Independence Day, 19 year-old Pavlo Hryb travelled to Gomel in Belarus to see his girlfriend, whom he had got to know through the Russian social net called vKontakte. Hryb crossed into Belarus without any problems, as the bus driver later told Pavlo’s father. Hryb had planned to return home that same day, but instead, he disappeared. After a week of searching, he was found in a detention cell in Krasnodar, in southern Russia. He had been arrested and accused of being involved in terrorism.
Everyone, especially their families, could think of one thing only: Why on earth did Russia’s FSB need to undertake an entire special operation in order to capture an ordinary student? Authoritarian regimes clearly operate according to their own logic. In the hybrid war Russia is waging against Ukraine, the television plays a very special role.
After Russia’s aggression began in April 2014, the Levada Center, a top Russian polling organization, ran a nationwide survey and discovered that 94% of Russians got information about events in Ukraine primarily from their TVs. And so television in Russia naturally has to show Ukrainian terrorists, spies, bandits and saboteurs on a regular basis in order to create the image of an enemy. How else can Moscow explain to its own people why so many fresh graves, some of them unidentified to this day, have appeared in the Rostov-on-Don cemetery near the Ukrainian border? And this is despite the leadership’s insistence that “Russia is not warring in Ukraine,” while the Russian equipment and Russian military uniforms seen by various observers was “bought in military surplus stores.”
The informational dimension is a very big aspect in this war and anyone can fall victim to it, as we can see with the arrest of someone like 73 year-old pensioner Yuriy Soloshenko when he was visiting Moscow. Or the dramatic story of Stanyslav Klykh who seems to mainly have been needed in order to repeat the name of the then-PM of Ukraine, Arseniy Yatseniuk, 228 times in reading the charges against him. According to the Russian investigation, the two of them ran around together killing Russian servicemen during the First Chechen War. How this was “invented” can be understood from Klykh’s appeal to the European Court of Human Rights: “... In Vladikavkaz, I was tortured at 2-3 day intervals so that I could recover and I was fed well during that time, then they started torturing me with electric shocks again... Meanwhile, I was kept in the prison yard for several days without food or water. Between these two methods of torture, I found myself in a dystrophic state where I could not hold a spoon or a pen in my hands because the wrists had been twisted out from being chained to the grate...”
The greatest threat faces those living in the occupied territories, people who publicly decry the annexation. The LetMyPeopleGo list being run by Euromaidan SOS includes the names of nearly 50 individuals who have been imprisoned for political reasons. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Back in summer 2016, according to figures tracked by human rights activists, at least 2,200 citizens of Ukraine had been tried and illegally transported to carry out their sentences in the farthest corners of Russia. Getting access to all these individuals and the materials of their cases is simply impossible.
Despite the determined statements from international organizations, Russia tossed Ilmi Umerov, the deputy chair of the Crimean Tatar Medjlis, behind bars without hesitation, declared journalist Mykola Semena guilty for simply having a different opinion, and shipped filmmaker Oleh Sentsov off to its northernmost labor camp, situated in the permafrost. Only the personal appeal of yet another authoritarian leader, Recep Erdogan, did Vladimir Putin pardon two Crimean Tatar leaders. Russia is demonstratively ignoring the terms of the resolution. The number of those arrested for political reasons in Crimea keeps growing. These days, the list is added to on a regular basis by the prisoners’ lawyers and people who bring them care packages. This means that the barometer of unfreedom in the occupied peninsula has already reached a critical point. Every month, the Our Children (Bizim Balalar) foundation collects donations to support more than 100 children, most of them Crimean Tatars, who have been left fatherless because of this kind of policy. The occupation government has punished their parents for non-violent resistance and has declared the children themselves “children of terrorists.”
In the part of Donbas occupied by Russia some 140 people are currently imprisoned. Among them are service personnel, civilians and even minors arrested for patriotic graffiti. International organizations have little or no access to them. To keep the local population submissive, practices associated with terror and fear-mongering are used. In May 2017, a “military tribunal” tossed a renowned religious scholar Ihor Kozlovskiy, who has been recognized by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience. He was accused of illegally possession of two grenades that were supposedly found during a search.
According to the Minsk accords, all these political prisoners were supposed to be immediately released. Instead, many of their families have now been waiting for several years for them to be free again. The Kremlin has no need of exchanges. For an authoritarian regime that wants political concessions such as a total amnesty for war crimes and elections while a military dictatorship is in place in order to legitimize it, people have no value. The despair of their families is used as another source of pressure on Ukraine.
The prospects for 2018 aren’t cheering. Everything points to a sharply worsening situation. New forms of persecution have emerged and already in summer 2016, people were being placed in psychiatric wards against their will. Repressive legislation and the deep-seated practices of Russia’s law enforcement agencies offer a very broad field for mass repression. It’s just a matter of capacity to handle all the “potentially disloyal population.” In that sense, we can consider all 5.5 million people who live in occupied Crimea and Donbas as hostages of the Kremlin.
It’s useless to expect some kind of legal resolution to this situation. For these prisoners to return home, the top leadership of Russia needs to make the necessary political decision. What form this takes legally—whether pardons, extraditions or exchanges—is little more than a secondary issue and a technical detail. For Putin to take this step, it has to become inconvenient for him to hang onto these people. This means intense international pressure and sanctions against Russia that can really hurt it. People often say that the key to releasing these prisoners is in Putin’s hands. In fact, Putin is holding people illegally. The key to releasing them lies with the West.
Oleksandra Matviychuk is Head of the Board at the Center for Civil Liberties NGO