Free our birds: what is happening with illegal imprisonment of Ukrainians in Russia

The Kharkiv human rights group, the Center for Civil Liberties, and the UHHRU held a discussion at the Ukraine Crisis Media Center about the mass abduction and detention of Ukrainian civilians by the Russian military.

As previously reported, Ukraine officially recognized 28,000 citizens as missing. According to Oleksandr Kononenko, the representative of the Verkhovna Rada Commissioner for Human Rights in the system of security and defense sector bodies, this number includes civilians, military personnel and children. This information is based on the data of the unified register of persons gone missing under special circumstances.

“We must clearly realize that this number is not final, and will only increase – People who are looking for their relatives, acquaintances or neighbors must first file a missing person’s report with  the National Police bodies so that this information is included into the registers.”

Oleksandr Kononenko informed that the first meeting of the international coalition for the release of civilian hostages was held. A similar platform for the release of children has already been created.

Oleksandr Pavlichenko, executive director at the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union (UHHRU), focused on the repressions in the temporarily occupied territories.

He noted that the first and main problem is the lack of effective monitoring and control by international players on the occupied territory of Ukraine and the territory of the Russian Federation, where civilians who are deprived of their liberty are taken. These are both the International Committee of the Red Cross and the OSCE mission, which should conduct independent visits to places of detention, examine the detention conditions, and find out  who is detained and on what grounds.

“International law operates selectively. When we see some photos of ICRC representatives visiting the Simferopol pre-trial detention center, this is to some extent a prepared process. Before a person is given for exchange, he is prepared for exchange, allowed to live in different conditions, and provided with better nutrition. When they are released, their photos with representatives of international institutions are taken and thus, a picture is created that everything is more or less safe,” the human rights defender explained.

Yevhen Zakharov, director of the Kharkiv human rights group, drew attention to the fate of certain categories of citizens. About 500 mental patients were taken out of Kherson region. There is no information about what happened with them. About a thousand lonely elderly people (mainly women) were also taken out. They are all settled in the Krasnodar Territory. There is no hotel. These people are in such a state that they can neither go to Russia nor return to Ukraine.

“If you would like us to look for your relatives, please call the hotline: 0 820 24 02,” Yevhen Zakharov added.

During the Round Table, it was recognized that the state and society do not sufficiently care about the issue of civilian prisoners. The non-governmental organization “Civilians in Captivity” unites the relatives of people who were imprisoned in Russia. Its representative Tetiana Marina noted that they have been left alone with their grief.

“To some extent, society sympathizes and tries to support us, but no decisive steps are being taken to involve the international community and make this topic a serious concern in Ukrainian society,” she admitted.

Olena Tsyhipa, the wife of illegally convicted activist Serhii Tsyhipa, emphasized that it is unfair to abandon civilians to their own devices. She has passed through various stages, including indignation, and resentment against our authorities. Today, Olena has come out of these conditions and travels all over Ukraine with the exhibition “Please, free our birds”, and she sees that people do not know about this problem.

“I am personally appealing to all countries and organizations for political sponsorship so that our relatives and all civilians can return home. I ask you to feel our pain, in which we have been living for more than one year,” the woman urged.

Natalia Yashchuk, Project Manager at Center for Civil Liberties, Anna Mushtukova, representative of the initiative group “Our closest relatives,” and Victoria Petruk, Deputy Director at the National Information Bureau, also took part in the event.