The special body should coordinate the activities of all state institutions in returning Ukrainian citizens from detention in Russia, they should also be recognized as “political prisoners” of the Kremlin.
Kyiv, October 28, 2016. More effective work aimed at the liberation of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia requires a special structure that would deal with exactly this issue. This was stated jointly by human rights activists, relatives of political prisoners and members of the parliament (MPs) at a press briefing held at Ukraine Crisis Media Center. “We ask for two things: to create a special body that would be permanently responsible for negotiations on the so-called “Crimean prisoners” and all the [Ukrainian] political prisoners who are kept in Russia. Second – to identify people who will constantly keep in touch with relatives of political prisoners so that people understand what is happening and how the case is developing,” stated MP Svitlana Zalishchuk. The statement is published on the website of the Center for Civil Liberties.
The main idea is to focus the efforts, which are scattered among the government, the Foreign Ministry, Presidential Administration and the Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights. “We see that a lot of work has been done over two years but with no effect. We need a body that would unite all, and a person to deal with the issues of political prisoners without being distracted by other issues,” said Natalya Kaplan, Oleg Sentsov’s sister. Oleksandra Matviychuk, Center for Civil Liberties, head of the Board, noted that it could be, for instance, a combined center within the Security Service which would engage with the issues of releasing captives and political prisoners and search for missing persons.
Relatives of political prisoners do not receive enough information from the authorities
According to relatives of political prisoners, they get very little information. “I cannot say that they close the doors before us, but we get information only when we come and demand it. […] The most important information comes from lawyers,” said Ihor Kotelyanets, brother of Yevhen Panov. “We understand that negotiations must be closed, but closed can transform in “doing nothing “and that is what worries us most. We do not want to know what is done but to be sure that at least something is done,” underlined Petro Vyhivskyi, father of Valentyn Vyhivskyi. “This issue has become particularly pressing after Putin’s recent statements during the Normandy Four meeting, when he just crossed out this group of people from the discussion under the Minsk format,” added Oleksandra Matviychuk.
MP Iryna Suslova believes that it is worth raising the issue of financial assistance to families of political prisoners. For example, Valentyn Vyhivskyi’s family is left without its main breadwinner, and his mother had to spend UAH 20,000 on one trip to visit him in.
Kremlin prisoners cannot be released without external pressure
According to MPs and human rights activists, we cannot succeed without active involvement of the international community. “Kremlin prisoners cannot be released without external pressure. It’s not just a Ukrainian concern but the concern of all democratic states that voted for the UN Resolution clearly stating that Russia keeps Ukrainian citizens imprisoned,” stated Svitlana Zalishchuk. She noted that the most appropriate way would be to intensify activities within the Geneva format and raise this question for a discussion there.
First step is to clearly define status of political prisoners in Ukraine
According to Ihor Kotelyanets, Yevgen Panov’s brother, all relatives expect first of all that they will be exchanged, “because we are dealing with political affairs, and any fair trial is out of the question.” Besides, there are some positive precedents for the exchange. However, there is no de facto legal basis for the exchange. “The biggest problem is the status of our prisoners in Russia, because the position of Ukraine is dual: on the one hand, there is “Russian aggression” against Ukraine, and this is recognized by European institutions; on the other, the status of our prisoners of war is de jure unclear. Consolidation of Ukrainian state institutions and the legal position of Ukraine is the step that should be taken in our struggle for liberating our citizens,” stated MP Ihor Lutsenko.
Second step is to mainstream the issue at the domestic and international level
According to Svitlana Zalischuk, the actions for liberation of our political prisoners can be enhanced by high level statements about Russia ignoring demands of the international community. “The President should convene a meeting of the National Security Council, monitor whether Russia fulfills its obligations under all international resolutions adopted at the UN, PACE, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, and inform the world what exactly is not fulfilled and why not,” she noted.
Iryna Suslova informed that the diplomatic corps has already appealed to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Chairman of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe and the Ombudsman of the Russian Federation for Human Rights. “Our demands are very simple – to take all political and diplomatic measures to return our people home,” noted the MP.
Dmytro Bilotserkivets noted that it would be appropriate to ask the international community to officially recognize “Kremlin prisoners” as the political prisoners. This will allow us to carry on the more straightforward dialogue over their fates. However, there may be serious difficulties in furnishing evidence that the charges are politically motivated. Oleksandra Matviychuk explained that for this purpose it is necessary to compare the case file with specific criteria, but the investigation and the court on “espionage” cases are non-public.
Dmytro Bilotserkivets and Ihor Lutsenko also stressed that we should start with the fact that under no circumstances Russia had the right to detain Ukrainian citizens on Ukrainian territory. “The key factor is that Crimean Tatars were detained in Crimea and tried in the RF. If Europe and the world legally recognize Crimea part of Ukraine, that factor will be a violation,” noted Dmytro Bilotserkivets.
At the domestic level, said Svitlana Zalischuk, we need to monitor the implementation of parliamentary recommendations adopted in summer, which envisage what Ukraine has to do for release of political prisoners on the legislative and executive level. Iryna Suslova added that MPs have requests the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Justice to provide information about the stage of negotiations on extradition of the political prisoners.