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Ukraine needs a consolidated strategy to return prisoners of Kremlin and hostages – human rights activists

Kyiv, March 14, 2017.

Ukraine needs a strategy on protection of human rights in conditions of the armed conflict and during post-conflict period. It would define a consolidated state policy towards all persons protected under international humanitarian law. The concept of the strategy was presented by human rights activists during a press briefing at Ukraine Crisis Media Center.

The key idea is to separate humanitarian issues from purely political problems within the Minsk format. “The issue of our detained citizens is a humanitarian issue; therefore, it should be discussed apart from political negotiations […] and should be addressed within the framework of international humanitarian law,” noted Nadiia Volkova, lawyer of Ukrainian Helsinki Union on Human Rights. “We do not call to give up the Minsk format at once, we suggest that a negotiation group, which would include international moral authorities, should be created within the Minsk format. If Ukraine offers such an idea to the western partners, I think they will support it,” added Mariia Tomak, coordinator of media initiative for human rights “Let My People Go”.

An important aspect of this issue is the status of conflict in Donbas, because it defines the status of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians in arbitrary detention of the so-called “LPR-DPR”.   Human rights activists reminded that the PACE and Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court had already recognized that the Russian Federation partly maintains effective control over the territories uncontrolled by the government and that this conflict has both internal and international aspects. At present, it is very important that Ukraine provides evidence that this is an international conflict. “The wrong designation of the armed conflict in the east of Ukraine as an “antiterrorist operation” by the Ukrainian government prevents us from the use of international humanitarian law and international law on human rights and limits the toolkit which would help protect heath and lives of these people,” – noted Alina Pavliuk, lawyer of Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. The use of the international humanitarian law would also put an end to legal uncertainty about the future of the captives after liberation.

Over 150 Ukrainians are still in arbitrary detention

Human rights activists reminded that the last big exchange of detainees took place in February 2015, when 124 persons were exchanged. In 2016, only 9 persons were exchanged. At present, at least 112 persons are in arbitrary detention in the so-called “LPR-DPR”. The situation of “Kremlin prisoners” is even more complicated. Since Iurii Soloshenko and Hennadii Afanasiev were released nine months ago, there has been no progress with liberation of others. Meanwhile, politically motivated detentions in Crimea by Russian occupational authorities take place almost every week. As of today, there are 44 “Kremlin prisoners”, 29 of them in Crimea and 15 in Russia.

There is a special center at the Security Service of Ukraine, mandated to work for liberation of hostages of the so-called “republics”, but there is no authority which would be directly responsible for the release of “Kremlin prisoners”, except for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which provides consul’s support within its mandate. However, the MFA can do it only for those detained in Russia, because the annexed Crimea is not recognized as a territory of Russia, explained Maria Tomak.

Tamara Klykh, mother of “Kremlin prisoner” Stanislav Klych, says that the only source of news about his condition is his lawyer Illia Novikov, there is no support from the state. “When Nadia Savchenko was in captivity, all the world tried to do something for her liberation. But it seems that no one cares about these people [who are still there],” she said.  Stanislav’s physical and mental health have seriously deteriorated. “At present he is in a prison that is known for cruel treatment of the prisoners. We are afraid that his strong emotions and mood swings result in very bad problems for him,” added Maria Tomak.

According to Liudmyla Hlondar, sister of captive Ukrainian soldier Serhii Hlondar, separation of humanitarian and other issues within the Minsk format would reduce space for political speculations on these issues. “We don’t try to use this issue for manipulations, all we want is to find solution. […] These dangerous processes that we see [here in Ukraine] over the last day resulted from the fact that Ukraine hasn’t been doing enough to solve the problem, and this opened opportunity to use the issue of hostages for internal destabilization,” emphasized Mariia Tomak.

Iurii Kachanov, director of the United Center of the Security Service of Ukraine for coordination of search and liberation of arbitrary detained, hostages and missing persons in the ATO area, agreed that the absence of the authority mandated to work on liberation of “Kremlin prisoners” is really a problem and it is necessary to address this issue.

He reminded that within the Minsk format there are already four separate groups, including a group on humanitarian issues. However, Russia always insists on comprehensive approach to all these aspects. According to him, representatives of Ukraine within the contact group cannot suggest further separation of humanitarian aspect. “The humanitarian group already acts within the Minsk format, so if we raise this issue, this will mean that we give up the Minsk format and suggest another format,” he explained.

Kachanov added that the representatives of the so-called republics insist that each of their people detained in Ukraine provided a statement, confirmed by the signature of the UN representative, which confirms the identity of the captive and his consent to be exchanged. “This is not within the UN mandate, so it can become an obstacle. We hope we will succeed to persuade them. Otherwise the process will be deadlocked again,” he said. Iurii Kachanov reminded that the “DPR-LPR” representatives refused to cooperate with the representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the OSCE.

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