What Minsk Accord? Luhansk journalist held hostage by Kremlin-backed militants for 12 months
11 months after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s agreement in Minsk that all prisoners must be released, the Kremlin-backed militants are continuing to hold a number of prisoners, including many civilians, like 31-year-old Luhansk journalist Maria Varfolomeyeva.
Although the Minsk Accords, both from September 2014, and Feb 2015, state clearly that all hostages and illegally detained persons must be released on an ‘all for all’ basis, neither the Kremlin, nor the militants in Donbas, are showing any intention of observing these commitments. At his last press conference, Putin was asked whether he would exchange two Russian military intelligence officers now on trial in Ukraine for Nadiya Savchenko, Oleg Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko and other Ukrainians held in Russia. He answered that an exchange must be of equal weight, and claimed that Ukraine was breaking the Minsk agreement by bringing charges against two Russian military men caught after they took part in an attack on Ukrainian soldiers in the course of which one Ukrainian soldier was killed, others injured.
There is indeed no parity since a large number of Russia’s Ukrainian hostages have already been declared political prisoners by the Memorial Human Rights Centre, and their release is demanded by all western countries. No such calls have been made with respect to the two Russian intelligence officers caught engaged in military activities in a country Russia has not declared war against.
Although the ‘all for all’ principle must be observed, there is also no parity in the number of hostages held by Russia’s proxies in the so-called ‘Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics’. Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU] knows of 151 hostages, though the figure could easily be higher.
Order of events here is critical. The Minsk Accords have now been extended into 2016, and in theory the release of all prisoners is only required 5 days after full withdrawal of all weapons. Ukraine is nonetheless under pressure to agree to elections to be held in militant-controlled areas, with the demand being that a general amnesty law be passed before such elections.
The level of rights abuses confirmed in the last UNHCR monitoring report, the heavy restrictions on freedom of speech, electoral rights, etc. would render the results of any elections highly questionable from the point of view of democratic standards. Western countries are pressing Ukraine to agree to such demands, forgetting that they will also be compromised by farcical elections which would doubtless, like on previous occasions, be praised only by the specific pool of far-right and extreme-left politicians Russia regularly invites as ‘observers’.
There is a very considerable amount of evidence of serious human rights crimes committed by Kremlin-funded and armed militants, including Russian mercenaries and soldiers. A recent survey found that over 87% of Ukrainian soldiers and 50% of civilians held prisoner by the militants had been subjected to torture. In over 40% of the cases, key roles were reported to have been played by mercenaries from the Russian Federation or people who identified themselves as Russian military personnel.
Unreasonable demands are perfect for Russia which can claim that Ukraine is breaking its commitments and step up pressure to get the sanctions waived without implementation of the accords.
The large number of soldiers and civilians still held hostage gives Russia and its proxies a useful lever. Requirements posed for the exchange of specific hostages are in breach of the Minsk accords, while also serving as a delaying tactic, with the militants often suddenly changing their demands.
One of the hostages who on Jan 9 will have been held in captivity for a year is Maria Varfolomeyeva. According to Konstantin Reutsky, a rights activist originally from Luhansk, the militants at one stage demanded the release of a person convicted some time ago of crimes unrelated to the military conflict in exchange for Varfolomeya. The Ukrainian authorities agreed, but then the militants reneged.
The militants have made allegations against the young journalist similar to those which Russia is using against Nadiya Savchenko, with equal lack of credibility. Although captured at a time when there had been no shelling in Luhansk for several months, they claimed that she was taking photos of buildings where militants were staying in order to pass on the coordinates to the Ukrainian military.
A damning indicator of how trumped up the charges are is demonstrated by the initial RIA Novosti report on Varfolomeyeva’s imprisonment and the militants’ charges. The government-controlled Russian agency states that Leonid Pasechnyk, ‘LNR minister of state security’ says that the young journalist is facing up to 15 years imprisonment and continues as follows: “On 27 January 2015 Luhansk was subjected to the latest shelling. According to the investigators, Varfolomeyeva passed the coordinates for shelling to the Ukrainian military.”
Maria Varfolomeyeva had been held prisoner for 19 days by that time, an even longer alibi than that proving Nadiya Savchenko’s innocence of similarly preposterous charges. RIA Novosti reports only Pasechnyk’s claim that Varfolomeyeva’s “guilt has been fully proven”. As ‘proof’ of Varfolomeyeva’s guilt, Pasechnik produced a photograph of the journalist holding a Right Sector business card which they found on her social network account.
Both the militants and the pro-Kremlin Life News TV channel clearly view the young journalist as something of a ‘trophy’. She was heard on video being tormented by militants back in February and then in May Life News came up with a carefully doctored interview. Varfolomeyeva’s obvious distress during the interview and difficulty speaking made it easy for Life News to add their version of the journalist’s supposedly changed attitude towards Ukrainian volunteer fighters.
The LifeNews headline claimed that the volunteer battalions Aidar and ‘Right Sector’ had “abandoned their spy captured by the insurgents”. The reporters assert that that she herself has had time to “change her attitude to the Ukrainian nationalist battalions”, although the remarks claimed are not on the tape. At the end of this recording, the journalist makes an emotional plea to her government to help bring about her release or exchange. It is quite clear that she denies any of the allegations made against her. Maria Varfolomeyeva took an active role in Euromaidan and was therefore in danger in Luhansk but could not leave her ailing grandmother. The elderly lady died a few days after her granddaughter was taken prisoner.
There have been appeals from both Ukrainian journalist organizations and Reporters without Borders for Varfolomeyeva’s release. The problem is that the appeals are to Ukraine, since there is no sense in addressing the militants directly. .
Russia must comply with the Minsk Accords in order for sanctions to be removed. Pressure could and should be put by Western countries on the Kremlin to free the prisoners it is holding and to tell its proxies in Donbas to release all hostages now.