Ukraine to provide support to families of political prisoners held in Russia and Crimea
Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers has finally adopted a resolution which will help the families of Russia’s Ukrainian political prisoners pay for lawyers, as well as visits where the men are held somewhere in Russia. Although there may be issues to be clarified, this is undoubtedly a much needed move. As Iryna Herashchenko wrote, it is unexpectable that parents should need to collect money all over the world in order to see their imprisoned sons.
The resolution has not yet been posted on site, however Prime Minister Volodymyr Groisman announced on 26 July that the government had agreed to allocate 100 thousand UAH (around 3, 220 euros) to the families of political prisoners held in Russia or on occupied territory, with this, presumably, including hostages held prisoner in the Kremlin’s Donbas proxy ‘republics’.
Iryna Herashchenko, MP and Ukraine’s Humanitarian Envoy at the Minsk Negotiations, has given more detail, though from her account it sounds more as though families would receive up to 100 thousand, which could depend on expenses. In fact, Russia is violating the European Convention and flouting a judgement from the European Court of Human Rights by holding Ukrainian prisoners thousands of kilometres from their homes, so in very many of the cases, the money would, if anything, not be enough. Herashchenko herself points out that one trip to Siberia can cost 20 thousand UAH, which is certainly far out of reach for many mothers or wives of political prisoners. Mention of mothers, not fathers, it should be noted, is not a symptom of sexism. In very many cases, such as those of Valentin Vyhivsky, student Pavlo Hryb, or Yevhen Panov, male members of the family could end up seized themselves, and have been advised not to take the risk. Even the Kremlin understands that arresting a mother visiting her political prisoner son will not look good.
Herashchenko writes that she and colleagues have taken enormous effort to ensure that the relevant funds were set aside in Ukraine’s 2018 Budget, with the amount envisaged over 90 million UAH, and for the relevant department to be set up to administer the aid. It is frustrating, she herself writes, that it should have taken the Cabinet of Ministers seven months to adopt the resolution.
In fact, that is the kindest timeframe since the problems faced by political prisoners and their families date back to the beginning of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Oleg Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Mykola Karpyuk and Mykola Shytpur, for example, have been imprisoned for well over four years.
In May 2017, for example, Ukraine’s Ministry for Occupied Territory and Internally Displaced Persons prepared a draft bill which would declare those Ukrainians held prisoner on political grounds in Russian-occupied Crimea and Russia as political prisoners and provide state assistance for their families. At that stage there were 69 children in occupied Crimea alone, whose fathers were imprisoned on trumped-up charges. As of July 2018, the number is well over 100, and there is no let-up to the arrests. The Minister Vadim Chernysh expressed willingness then to work with NGOs on this and also on the creation of a coordination centre for all matters related to political prisoners. There have been some moves in that direction, though less than the families and human rights groups are seeking.
As reported, there has been frustration at the failure to develop strategy to put maximum pressure on Moscow and to coordinate efforts to get the prisoners released. The families of the men have frequently complained of feeling abandoned, and, in many cases, there was major difficulty in ensuring money to pay for lawyers.
There was real euphoria in Ukraine when 73 prisoners were welcomed home from imprisonment in Donbas. Even then, over 160 others were still held prisoner in Donbas, Crimea or Russia. Hopes that the December 2017 exchange would be the first of many have not come to anything, and Russia is still remaining implacable, and producing outright lies to ‘explain’ their refusal to release Oleg Sentsov, who has been on hunger strike since 14 May.
Sentsov is demanding the release of all the Kremlin’s Ukrainian prisoners and has said that he would regard a solution that saw only him released as a failure. At the moment, at least two other Ukrainian political prisoners have been on hunger strike for a dangerously long time. There are particular concerns in the case of 47-year-old Volodymyr Balukh, who has been on almost total or total hunger strike since March 2018, though 28-year-old Oleksandr Shumkov has also now been without any food since 24 May. It is also believed that journalist Stanislav Aseyev is on hunger strike in occupied Donetsk, where he has been imprisoned since June 2017.
There are also civic initiatives helping the families of political prisoners in Crimea. See: The Crimean childhoods Russia ended in just a few brutal moments
Ukrainians held illegally in Russia or occupied Crimea