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17 years for pro-Ukraine photo & burning the flag of an unrecognized Russian-backed ‘republic’

Halya Coynash

Vlad [Vladyslav] Ovcharenko spent his 21st birthday on November 24 in a Luhansk SIZO [remand prison].  He had only recently been allowed a brief visit from his parents for the first time since he was ‘arrested’ over 13 months ago for a flash-mob with the Ukrainian flag and for burning the flag of the self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ [LPR].  This the Russian-backed LPR ‘ministry of state security’ termed ‘spying’, sentencing the young man on October 25 to 17 years’ imprisonment.  His friend and fellow football fan Artem Akhmerov got a 13-year sentence. 

Until November 9, Viktoria Ovcharenko had not seen her son since the morning of October 10, 2016 when Vlad left the house to meet his girlfriend, saying he’d be back in  an hour or so.  She and her husband began worrying later that day when they couldn’t contact him and none of his friends knew where he was. 

At around 19.30 the ‘LPR police’ turned up at their place with a search warrant.  Viktoria Ovcharenko asked only to know that her son was alive and was told ‘more than so’. 

It was to be exactly 13 months that Vlad’s parents were finally allowed a meeting with their son.  They were given just 30 minutes, and could only speak to him through a glass wall.  Up till then, despite all appeals, including through the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, neither they nor the monitors were allowed to see the young men.

Vlad was just 19 when seized and accused of ‘spying for Ukraine’.  He and Artem Akhmerov, also 19, were avid football fans, members of the Zarya Ultras Football Club. In August 2016 they had carried out a protest action in which they burned the ‘LPR flag’, and Ovcharenko had also posted photos of himself with a Ukrainian flag and had expressed criticism of ‘LPR’ to Julian Röpcke from Germany’s Bild newspaper.

 ‘LPR’ media claimed that Ovcharenko and Akhmerov had contacts with the Aidar volunteer battalion, and that leaflets had been found at his home calling on people to fight the occupiers, as well as from ‘Azov’ and ‘Right Sector’ – Ukrainian nationalist movements regularly demonized by Russia.  His mother rejects such allegations, saying the young men were members only of Zarya Ultras. 

Since it was only the two ‘flag episodes’ that the so-called investigator finally mentioned to Vlad’s parents, it seems probable that these really were considered enough to warrant the surreal charge of ‘spying for Ukraine’ and the 17-year sentence.

The young man had only the lawyer appointed by the ‘security ministry’ and it was only from him that his parents learned anything.  They themselves were not allowed to be at the closed ‘trial’, held in a so-called military court.

Zarya Ultras and other football fans outside the territory under ‘LPR’ control have held marches in Ukrainian cities, demanding the young men’s release, and have called on football fans in other countries to show solidarity.

Both Ovcharenko and Akhmerov are on Ukraine’s list of prisoners for exchange.  While there have been some positive noises about an exchange finally taking place, with this after a supposed phone call to militant leaders from Russian President Vladimir Putin, it remains to be seen whether it comes to anything.

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