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Russia abducts, tortures and imprisons Ukrainians. And Ukraine?

Halya Coynash

Ukraine’s legislators are still dragging their feet on vital legislation needed to support Russia’s ever-rising number of Ukrainians imprisoned on politically-motivated charges or for their faith, as well as their families.  A recent legislative initiative not only gave Ukraine’s Security Service [SBU] the role of deciding who qualifies and who does not, but also effectively means that prisoners themselves would not be eligible for support until after their release. 

The first prisoners – Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko, politician Mykola Karpyuk and others have been imprisoned since shortly after Russia’s invasion of Crimea.  Since then, the number of prisoners we know of is close to 70, and there may well be others.  While the majority are from Crimea, there are also people who were seized illegally while in Russia, or positively abducted from Ukrainian territory or, in the case of 19-year-old Pavlo Hryb, from Belarus.

Progress appeared to have been made in May 2017 with a draft bill tabled by veteran Crimean Tatar leader and MP Mustafa Dzhemilev, together with the Ministry on Occupied Territory and Internally Displaced Persons.  The bill proposed to declare those Ukrainians held prisoner on political grounds in Russian-occupied Crimea and Russia as political prisoners and provide state assistance for their families.  The bill envisaged 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 were warnings then that the bill required reworking, in particular to ensure that every was included. Not all the prisoners held in occupied Crimea or Russia fall easily within the customary definition of political prisoners.  There are also prisoners who, in some cases while held incommunicado and tortured, agreed to plead guilty to fabricated charges.  

It is also not for a state authority to take on the task of determining who is a political prisoner. In a recent interview, Oleksandra Matviychuk, Head of the Centre for Civil Liberties, pointed out that the level of public and international trust for such decisions would inevitably be very low, especially in the light of recent concerns regarding treatment of anti-corruption NGOs in Ukraine itself. 

Human rights groups were involved in a working group of such legislation back in the summer of 2017.  Unfortunately, their advice regarding how to ensure that the law covers all those whom it should was ignored.

Despite up-beat predictions in May 2017, the bill basically gathered dust and was finally sent back for reworking in March 2018.

A new draft bill, No. 8205 was tabled on 27 March, 2018, with the authors including Refat Chubarov, Head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis and Iryna Herashchenko, the President’s humanitarian envoy to the Minsk negotiations who has been involved in most negotiations on prisoner exchanges.

The bill is aimed, as its title states, in establishing ‘the legal status and social guarantees for people illegally deprived of their liberty, held hostage or convicted on temporarily occupied Ukrainian territory and beyond its borders’. 

The bill’ flaws are glaring enough for the Crimean Human Rights Group and other NGOs to have warned of serious risks if it were passed. 

The main problem is that it would be left to the SBU to determine who should have such legal status.  This would hardly add legitimacy to the task since the SBU has itself been accused of rights violations in Donbas.  Even without the current tension given Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine,  the SBU has no authority to carry out any checks in Russia, and no access to enable verification of information in occupied Crimea or Donbas.  The families of political prisoners or hostage would likely be in danger if they tried to communicate directly with Ukraine’s Security Service.

There are also some absurdities in the draft bill which need to be removed.  At present, this states that a prisoner would need to receive a document confirming his (or her) right to the social benefits in person which would clearly be possible only after their release. 

Nothing at present has been properly considered. It was reported on 12 April that the Finance Ministry has also sent No. 8205 back to the Ministry on Occupied Territories since the rules for receiving financial assistance “do not comply with the content and aims of the budgetary program”.  This appears to be more about bureaucracy than about the lack of actual funding set aside, but, one way or another, the families of the Kremlin’s Ukrainian prisoners are suffering.

It seems that the authors of the bill have themselves realized that it needs revision and are willing to work on it in cooperation with rights NGOs and the Ombudsman’s office.  In fact, rights groups believe it would be more constructive to withdraw this bill and work on an alternative, and Herashchenko has expressed willingness to go along with this.

The problem is timing, since a lot of work will need to be done before the Verkhovna Rada takes its summer break.  A number of the prisoners need legal help now, and there are over 100 children in Crimea who are growing up without their fathers.  In very many cases, the arrested men were the breadwinners of families with several young children. 

It cannot be said that these families have been abandoned, quite the contrary.  In April 2016, when the number of political prisoners was much lower, Crimean Tatar journalist wrote an article entitled ‘Now these are OUR CHILDREN’ for which she was issued with a formal warning of “the inadmissibility of extremist activities”

Her call on Crimean Tatars to show solidarity with the victims of repression led to the civic initiative Bizim Balalar [Our Children] which is now providing regular, albeit modest, financial help for the children of Crimean political prisoners and of those who were abducted or disappeared.  They also organize various festive events for the children, and have a children’s psychologist who can give support where needed. 

There are other initiatives as well, such as Crimea Solidarity, however this initiative has faced serious harassment from the Russian-controlled ‘authorities’ and a number of its activists have been imprisoned.

None of this, nor efforts from the families of Kremlin hostages in mainland Ukraine can compensate for the urgently needed legislative moves by Ukraine’s government in support of Ukrainians held prisoner, often for their pro-Ukrainian position.


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