Who will free the Kremlin’s prisoners?

28 July 2019, 11:14

Volodymyr Zelenskiy inherited the problem of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia from his predecessor. Russia is keeping over 100 Ukrainians, accusing them of various crimes ranging from spying to terrorism. All these accusations stem from bogus evidence, false testimony or Russia’s anti-terrorism laws. Russia tends to qualify activists, volunteers, journalists and human rights advocates as “criminals”, while its courts do not see any political motivation in these persecutions and come up with verdicts sending Ukrainians to jails for 10-20 years. The latest such decision arrived on June 18 in Rostov-on-Don. The court imprisoned five Crimean Tatars accused of involvement in the Hizb ut-Tahrir organization for anywhere between 11 and 17 years.

The last time Ukraine managed to get its political prisoners from Russia was in October 2017: Crimean Tatar leaders Ilmi Umerov and Akhtem Chyigoz returned to Kyiv. According to the human rights advocates interviewed by The Ukrainian Week, the Mejlis, the representative body of the Crimean Tatar people, played a serious role in his. Ukraine also hoped that its political prisoners would be exchanged before the 2018 World Cup hosted by Russia. Rumors had it that Russia was preparing to hand Oleh Sentsov over to Ukraine, right after he announced a hunger strike. But rumors remained just that. 

The issue of political prisoners was partly used during the presidential campaign. The previous administration pledged to finally regulate the status of the Kremlin’s prisoners in law, or at least to kickstart the process. Pro-presidential MPs kept telling the families of the prisoners that they would vote for bill 8205 regarding this issue. It has been in the Rada since March 2018. 

“We wanted to meet with Iryna Herashchenko in March. But she sent her lawyer who was working on an alternative draft law on political prisoners (bill №8337 – Ed.). We explained that we would not support their draft law as it recognized the status of the Kremlin’s prisoner after liberation, arrival to Ukraine and interrogation by the SBU (Ukraine’s Security Bureau – Ed.). This means that Oleh Sentsov must spend his 20 years in jail to be officially recognized as Russia’s prisoner. We are talking about this everywhere now. Bill 8205 essentially says the same thing. But one difference is that bill 8205 was to be voted in the first reading, then amended. The proposal for the alternative bill was to pass it as is,” Ihor Kotelianets, the brother of political prisoner Yevhen Panov and head of the Association of Families of the Kremlin’s Political Prisoners, explains. 

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“There was a meeting with the families of political prisoners and human rights advocates before the election where we were told that they would not vote for the alternative bill. In exchange, they asked us to not write anything bad on social media. Later, Iryna Herashchenko promised to pass the law on the prisoners in May because the language law was the Rada’s priority and they would not have enough time to pass the political prisoners law earlier. Theydidn’tdoitinMay. Honestly, I didn’t believe that they would deceive is like this. I thought of the upcoming parliamentary election. As a result, the representatives of the previous administration simply cut off communication with us,” Kotelianets complains.

In fact, Iryna Herashchenko was President Poroshenko’s envoy for the peaceful resolution for Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts. She was also in charge of political prisoners after the previous administration failed to appoint an envoy for that issue in its five years in office. Herashchenko resigned after the presidential election and Poroshenko signed her resignation on May 18. As a result, Ukraine temporarily found itself without anyone with the responsibilities and the powers to work on the liberation of political prisoners in the Donbas and those held by the Kremlin. 

“Yes, Herashchenko was in charge of political prisoners. But she did not work on it seriously. She did useful things, but there was no systemic work as seen by human rights advocates and the families of the prisoners. De facto, there was – and there is no one responsible for this issue,” Maria Tomak, coordinator of the Media Initiative for Human Rights, explains.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy found a replacement for Iryna Herashchenko after his inauguration, appointing former ombudswoman Valeria Lutkovska. She was appointed as member of the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk responsible for humanitarian issues, including the exchange of prisoners between Ukraine and the “DNR and LNR”. It is yet to be seen whether she will deal with political prisoners as well.

“There was no talk of Crimea or of political prisoners in Minsk. It was always about ORDiLO (occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts – Ed.). When Lutkovska was ombudswoman, she was always in touch with us. Whenever we had any problems, she could instruct her team and notify us of who would be dealing with it. She knew how to approach Tatiana Moskalkova (Russian Ombudswoman – Ed.). She knows how to speak to that side. It’s good that she’s back,” Kotelianets insists. 

The families of political prisoners also hope that Lutkovska will have more opportunities further on and will oversee the efforts focused on the Kremlin’s political prisoners.Their families also expect a series of other steps from the new administration. These include the establishment of a coordination council on political prisoners, the appointment of an official in charge of this issue and the adoption of the hostage status law. All these initiatives were mentioned at the May 30 meeting with President Zelenskiy. He voiced support for them. 

“Zelenskiy asked us whether we had specific proposals on what could be done right now. We listed these three items. He supported us and promised us that he would look at the issue and allocate a person to communicate with us on behalf of the Presidential Administration and notify us of the appointments. Draft proposals on the envoy and the coordination council are ready, we developed them during Poroshenko’s presidency. So, everything is essentially ready. We’ve got the promises, but no appointments have followed so far. It’s been a month,” Kotelianets says.

“There is no progress in this yet. There are no decisions. Because the elections are everyone’s topic № 1 right now. We have a contact person at the Presidential Administration who is in touch with us. But I would not compare the quality of communication in the two administrations. I would compare the results. There have been none so far. It was obvious at the meeting that the issue of the Kremlin’s political prisoners is important for Zelenskiy. Especially in the runup to the election. The main thing now is to keep scoundrels out of these efforts. Not necessarily out of evil will. But because the Presidential Administration may not be fully aware of what’s going on,” Tomak says.  

According to The Ukrainian Week’s sources, Liudmyla Denisova, the Verkhovna Rada Ombudswoman for Human Rights, would like to be appointed as envoy for political prisoners. She is reportedly trying to persuade the Presidential Administration that she would manage the new responsibilities. She has reportedly been collecting requests to be released from Ukrainian political prisoners. But this activity from Denisova worries the people dealing with the Kremlin’s political prisoners. 

“If you look at the way Lutkovska has interacted with the civil society after the Revolution of Dignity, she is more oriented at human rights. Denisova is a politician first and foremost. She’s not a human rights advocate. We would be ok with Lutkovska, but Denisova seems to be claiming this office, she wants to be ombudswoman. But she already has her function, she is the ombudswoman for human rights! We need someone with a strategic understanding of the problem, someone to look for negotiators, engage them in negotiations with Russia, get access to people in prisons and get them out of there. This is all very difficult to do,” Tomak comments. 

Russia’s President Putin has, too, spoken on the upcoming appointments. He met with Viktor Medvedchuk, the father of his goddaughter and the head of the Opposition Platform – For Life party, to discuss the liberation of imprisoned Ukrainians. Their families interpret Putin’s rhetoric as a hint that exchanges will only take place with Medvedchuk involved. 

“Putin’s statement does not mean that the exchanges will start tomorrow. But it’s a good thing that he has mentioned this. We don’t like Medvedchuk for a reason. But Putin’s statement signals that the issue of exchanges cannot be solved without Medvedchuk. We must understand that Medvedchuk does not represent Ukraine in this situation, he represents Putin. I personally hope that political parties will try to use this issue in parliamentary election, trying to free people to gain votes. But how good is Medvedchuk as a negotiator when we haven’t had any exchanges for two years now? Plus, I don’t think that the voters supporting NATO and European integration would suddenly decide to vote for the Customs Union and a man who has Putin as his daughter godfather. His electorate is not interested in political prisoners anyway. So, I don’t see risks here. If several people are freed under the aegis of Medvedchuk, I don’t mind that,” Kotelianets comments on Putin’s statement. 

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Exchanges are unlikely to happen before the parliamentary election in Ukraine. The June 19 talks with a new contact group in Minsk delivered no results. Russia speaks about exchange, but it does not specify the category of people it speaks about – those held hostage in ORDiLO, hostage navy sailors or the political prisoners put in jail under the Kremlin’s decision. The new Presidential Administration must learn the lessons of its predecessors and find solutions to the problems that remain unsolved for the past five years. Ukrainian political prisoners and their families are waiting for the state to help them today, not in 20 years when their sentences expire. 

Translated by Anna Korbut 

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