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23.08.2018 | Halya Coynash

Remember Ukrainians jailed by Russia, tortured & murdered for Ukraine’s National Flag

(left) Volodymyr Rybak, Volodymyr Balukh after 2 months of hunger strike
   

On this fifth Ukrainian National Flag Day since Russia began its undeclared war against Ukraine, Volodymyr Balukh remains imprisoned in occupied Crimea for that flag and very weak after almost 160 days on total or near-total hunger strike. The day is sombre also in memory of Volodymyr Rybak who was horrifically tortured to death in 2014 for defending the flag and Ukraine against the militants who had seized control of Sloviansk under the leadership of former Russian military intelligence officer Igor Girkin and his heavily armed fighters.

Ukrainian Flag Day is celebrated the day before Independence Day on August 24.  This year it is marked with at least 70 political prisoners held in Russia and occupied Crimea, and with over 100 hostages held by the Kremlin’s proxy ‘republics’ in Donbas.  Some, like Serhiy Glondar and Oleksandr Korinkov, are military officers taken prisoner defending Ukraine.

Volodymyr Rybak was a member of the Horlivka City Council. He was married with two children. On April 17, 2014 he tried to remove the flag of the so-called ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ which the militants had hung over the seized council building.   

The video here shows Rybak being stopped as he tried to enter the building, pushed and beaten, before being forced into a car and taken away by masked militants in camouflage gear.  He was almost certainly taken to Sloviansk which was already held by Girkin and his men. 

His tortured and mutilated body was found 2 days later in a small stream outside Sloviansk, together with that of 19-year-old student Yury Popravko

Remember also 16-year-old Stepan Chubenko who was seized by Kremlin-backed militants in Donetsk on 23 July 2014 because of the ribbons in the colour of the Ukrainian flag on his rucksack.  He was tortured, before being murdered, with Russia since having refused to extradite the militant commander Vadim Pogodin. who ordered Stepan’s torture and fired the last fatal shot (details here)

Other Ukrainians have also faced abductions and torture, especially during that first year of the Russian-manned and armed conflict in Donbas.

From February 2014, representatives of all faiths, except the Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate, took part in a Prayer Marathon on Constitution Square in the centre of Donetsk to pray for Ukraine’s unity and for peace. The Prayer Marathon continued for 158 days, although it became more and more dangerous with each day.  Pastor Sergey Kosyak has stressed that the main danger was in the fact that they gathered under the flag of Ukraine.  They had even been approached and told to  take away the flag and they could pray as much as they wanted to.  They refused “since for us it was more than a flag”. 

We are here, - Father Sergey explained on one occasion – to defend the honour of this flag.  Various types of evil have been committed at times under it, but today we are rehabilitating its symbol, praying under it for peace, for love, for the people living in our country”.

“Taking the flag in your hands, remember that this is no usual canvas, your brothers and sisters died for it.”

16 participants ended up taken captive, with 5 of them subjected to mock executions.

It has become extremely dangerous in the so-called ‘Donetsk and Luhansk republics’ and in occupied Crimea to be seen or to publicly photograph oneself with the Ukrainian flag or other Ukrainian national symbols.  The same is largely true in occupied Crimea of the Crimean Tatar Flag.

21-year-old Vlad [Vladyslav] Ovcharenko and 20-year-old Akhtem Akhmerov were finally released on 27 December 2017, as part of the major exchange of prisoners.  They had both been held prisoner in Luhansk since October 2016, ‘for’ a flash-mob with the Ukrainian flag and for burning the flag of the self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk people’s republic’.  This the Russian-backed LPR ‘ministry of state security’ termed ‘spying’, sentencing Ovcharenko on October 25, 2017 to 17 years’ imprisonment and Akhmerov to 13.

Volodymyr Balukh: Four and a half years of persecution for remaining true to Ukraine

Volodymyr Balukh’s problems with the FSB and Russian-controlled police began soon after Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, with the Ukrainian flag flying over his home evidently one of the reasons. 

All charges have been quite absurdly fabricated from the outset, but they became more serious after Balukh refused to be cowered into silence. 

On earlier occasions, the FSB used an identical and highly improbable story about Balukh making a drunken offer in a bar for two entirely different allegations of theft. When other charges fell through for lack of even a hint of evidence, they accused him of ‘insulting a police officer’ (details here).

On several occasions, the Russian-controlled enforcement officers removed the Ukrainian flag from the roof of his home, with Balukh putting it back again each time. Then in late November 2016, he nailed a plaque renaming his home No. 18 “Heroes of Nebesna Sotnya St’ in memory of the over 100 Maidan activists who were killed during Euromaidan.  There were immediate demands from the head of the local council to remove it, which he rejected. 

He was arrested nine days later, on December 8, 2016, after a grossly irregular and unexplained ‘search’ of his home.  During this ‘search’, which also resulted in the Ukrainian flag again being removed, the enforcement officers claimed to have found 90 bullets and several TNT explosives.

Balukh had no record of crime, only of harassment under Russian occupation, making it simply inconceivable that he would have held anything illegal in his home.  This was one of many reasons why the renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre declared him a political prisoner almost immediately.

As with earlier administrative charges, no attempt at all was made to achieve even a modicum of plausibility. The officer who had supposedly found the ammunition had not been on duty that day and could not name the individuals who had instructed him to be present or their position in the law enforcement bodies. He was just as unable to explain why he’d removed the Ukrainian flag.

The ammunition which the men, wandering in some unclear capacity around the Balukh home, allegedly found, had no fingerprints or other traces to indicate that any member of the family had touched them, and it was found to be on the official register of weapons and ammunition in Barnaul, the Altai region of the Russian Federation. Both Balukh and his wife had effectively been imprisoned during the search to prevent them seeing what was going on.

All of the above was revealed during the ‘court hearings’, yet ‘judge’ Maria Bedritskaya from the Razdolne District Court still sentenced him on 4 August 2017 to three and a half years’ imprisonment.  The defence succeeded in getting that sentence overturned because Bedritskaya had also been involved in earlier persecution of Balukh, however the occupation regime simply enacted a remake under another ‘judge’ – Yelena Tedeyeva – who on 16 January 2018 passed exactly the same sentence.

Balukh is now awaiting the appeal against a further cynical sentence, passed on 5 July 2018 by another Razdolne District Court ‘judge’ Tetyana Pyrzhalo.  The charges were nonsensical, and clearly pushed only to add another three years to the two years remaining of the first sentence (details here).

There are grave concerns about Balukh’s state of health. The 47-year-old farmer and activist declared hunger strike on 19 March in protest at his imprisonment on politically motivated charges.  He was persuaded after 25 days to take what is essentially a bare minimum to slow down the collapse of his organs.  He had then resumed the full hunger strike on 23 June in protest at a second fabricated ‘criminal case’, initiated while he was already imprisoned.  78-year-old Natalya Balukh has only once seen her son since then, on 9 August, and has said that he seems like a skeleton.  Although he is thankfully taking the minimum again, this cannot prevent enormous strain on all body organs, and he has long complained of chest pains.  

Volodymyr Balukh is facing persecution and immediate danger to his life for his defence of Ukraine in occupied Crimea.  Please inform politicians and the media in your country about his case, as well as that of Oleg Sentsov and all the Kremlin’s 70 (at least) Ukrainian political prisoners of war.

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