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Ukraine moves to support political prisoners held in Crimea & Russia and their families
Ukraine’s Ministry on Occupied Territory and Internally Displaced Persons has 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. Since there are 69 children just in occupied Crimea whose fathers are imprisoned on trumped-up charges, legislation is urgently needed.
The initiative is still far from becoming law and will require considerable refinement before reaching parliament, but the Minister Vadim Chernysh has expressed willingness to work with NGOs on this. During the press conference on May 25, he also supported the creation of a coordination centre for all matters related to political prisoners, and said that this could be within his ministry. As reported, in October 2016, relatives of political prisoners launched a public appeal to Ukraine’s leaders to develop a new strategy for putting pressure on Moscow and coordinating efforts to get the prisoners released. Over six months later, there had seemed virtually no response, so this initiative from Chernysh’ ministry is particularly welcome.
It is likely that the drive came from veteran Crimean Tatar leader, MP and Presidential Commissioner on Crimean Tatar Issues, Mustafa Dzhemiliev. He said at the press conference that the draft bill is of enormous moral significance and that “the country must support those who are fighting for it”. He stressed that the financial assistance is also vital, especially as many of those who are now imprisoned are the sole breadwinners in the family, The bill at present envisages a monthly amount of money for the prisoners or their relatives; legal aid, some medical care and a place in Ukrainian higher institutes for a prisoner’s children.
There are numerous problems which will need to be resolved. The very vague draft mentions over 40 (in fact, 44) political prisoners held in Crimea and Russia. It leaves out those held in militant-controlled Donbas altogether, although their families are also in urgent need of support. While it is now exactly a year since Ukrainian MP and former military pilot Nadiya Savchenko was released from Russian imprisonment, her case makes the role of Russia here also quite clear. Savchenko was captured by Kremlin-backed militants in the Luhansk oblast, and taken illegally across the border into Russia where she was ‘tried’ on absurd charges.
It is possible that this law should not be used to encompass the political prisoners, hostages and POW now held in Donbas, however something is clearly needed. At present the release of over 120 such hostages is discussed only as part of the Minsk negotiations and tends to take second place to other issues. There are many who have been held prisoner for over two years, and there are also several who fall under any definition of political prisoner. Nobody would seriously doubt the control Russia exerts over the militants of the so-called ‘republics’ in Donbas. If the hostages are not released, this is because Russia prefers it that way.
The law will also need to clearly define the criteria for determining who falls within its scope. By no means all the people currently held prisoner would fall under the usual definition of political prisoner, however their continued imprisonment is linked with political decisions and / or Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. At least two of the prisoners held in Russia, Valentin Vyhivsky and Viktor Shur were held virtually incommunicado and almost certainly tortured into confessing to ‘spying’ charges. With such charges enabling maximum secrecy, they were ‘tried’ and sentenced to 11 and 12 years, respectively, without any real recourse to justice. The fact that they ‘confessed’ under such circumstances does not stop them being political prisoners.
The 44 prisoners held in occupied Crimea and Russia
It is three years since the Russian FSB arrested them and Gennady Afanasyev (since released on health grounds) on totally spurious terrorist plot charges. The men had peacefully opposed Russia’s occupation, and the case has been condemned as “ideologically motivated terror” against dissent.
In August 2016, the FSB came up with the first of two new ‘Crimean saboteur’ plots’. In the two, seemingly unrelated, ‘cases’, 10 men have so far been arrested, Yevhen Panov, Andriy Zakhtei, Ridvan Suleimanov and Volodymyr Prysich were seized in August, with all forced to give ‘confessions’ before cameras. Panov and Zakhtei retracted all testimony when finally, only after the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights, allowed to see lawyers, and both have spoken of the torture they were subjected to.
Two academics - Dmytro Shtyblikov and Oleksiy Bessarabov - were arrested in Sevastopol together with a retired Ukrainian military officer Volodymyr Dudka. The FSB claimed that they were “members of a sabotage – terrorist group of the Ukrainian Defence Ministry’s Central Intelligence Department” who were planning acts of sabotage on military and other infrastructure”. Two other Crimeans - Oleksiy Stohniy and Hlib Shabliy were arrested 10 days later and gave similar ‘confessions’, although it has since transpired that Stohniy was arrested at a different time altogether and is now facing different charges (more details here). Nothing is known of Shabliy, nor of Leonid Parkhomenko, a long-retired Black Sea Fleet captain, arrested on Nov 24, 2016.
19 Crimean Muslims, most of them Crimean Tatars, are in indefinite custody, with four already convicted. All are accused of involvement in the pan-Islamic movement Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is legal in Ukraine. Russia has provided no evidence that Hizb ut-Tahrir is ‘terrorist’ and there is no proof of any act of terrorism or violence anywhere in the world.
Crimean Tatar Ruslan Zeytullaev was recently sentenced to 12 years after the FSB objected to the first ‘light’ sentence since they needed a leader for their unproven Hizb ut-Tahrir group. The same military court in Rostov obliged the second time, despite the lack of any evidence and the fundamental illegality of the prosecution.
Emir-Usein Kuku is almost certainly imprisoned because of his human rights activities, and after an attempted abduction only turned into an FSB ‘search’ when Kuku’s cries for help attracted attention. It is likely that other men, such as Muslim Aliev, were arrested for their strong civic position, while Vadim Siruk was quite possibly targeted as an ethnic Ukrainian to warn others against converting to Islam.
It should be stressed that the 15 men still in custody in Crimea are now facing huge sentences on no grounds at all.
If Russia was hoping for a show trial against Akhtem Chiygoz, the highest-ranking Mejlis leader in Crimea since its head Refat Chubarov was banned from his homeland, it should have come up with something less openly lawless. Chiygoz has been in custody for over 2 years, and Asanov and Degermendzhy were held in prison for almost 2 years before being released under house arrest. This is despite the fact that the charges against them are over a pre-annexation demonstration and are even in breach of Russia’s own legislation, as well as fundamental principles of jurisdiction. Only Crimean Tatars are targeted although there were also pro-Russian demonstrators, and most of the violence in fact is seen from among their activists.
Mykola Shyptur, a Maidan activist has been held prisoner in Crimea since March 9, 2014. Shyptur ended up in prison following an attack and attempted abduction by the armed paramilitaries who helped Russian soldiers take control of Crimea and who are believed to have been behind the enforced disappearances of pro-Ukrainian activists. He showed resistance which may well have saved his life, since the police were forced to react. Even though Shyptur was clearly the victim, he ended up sentenced on trumped-up charges to 9 years.
Both men were convicted on absurd and unprovable charges linked with Euromaidan in Kyiv, well before annexation. The men’s allegations of torture, backed in Kostenko’s case by his broken arm and other injuries, were ignored, as were the multiple irregularities.
Pro-Ukrainian activist Volodymyr Balukh has been in custody since December 2016 on preposterous charges.
As well as the Crimeans illegally held in Russian prisons, there are also Ukrainians from other parts of Ukraine held, some after effectively being abducted, in Russia.
Mykola Karpyuk and Stanislav Klykh were seized and held incommunicado for 18 months and 10 months, respectively. During that time, under torture, they signed confessions to insane ‘crimes’ allegedly committed in 1994-1995, together with former Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk and other prominent Ukrainian politicians. Despite the fact that the charges are refuted by historical fact, and that the men retracted all testimony as given under torture, when finally allowed to see lawyers, they were sentenced to 22.5 and 20 years. There are very serious concerns about Klykh who has been systematically driven insane through torture, psychotropic drugs and the Stalinist insanity of the ‘trial’.
Similar torture was applied to obtain the secret trials and 11-year sentence of Valentin Vyhivsky and 12-year sentence of Viktor Shur. Serhiy Lytvynov is serving an 8.5 year sentence on a second surreal charge, after the late Viktor Parshutkin, helped by Ukrainian activists, proved that Lytvynov’s ‘confessions’ to heinous war crimes had been extracted through torture.