Russia is hiding renowned Ukrainian POW & rights activist Maksym Butkevych in occupied Luhansk oblast
Maksym Butkevych, who has done so much to defend human rights in Ukraine, was not present at the ceremony in Kyiv on 10 December, International Human Rights Day which recognized his work. The well-known human rights activist and journalist is also a prisoner of war whom Russia has illegally ‘tried’ and sentenced to 13 years’ imprisonment on provably false charges. The National Human Rights Award for 2023 on his behalf by his father, Oleksandr Butkevych. The latter read out a powerful excerpt from an earlier letter written by his son: “War is a terrible thing, yet I still hope that it will not so brutalize and harden us that, after it, we push human rights into second or third place. Our struggle is being waged for human rights, for those democratic values that are lacking in the Russian Federation and which the enemy is trying to destroy in us.”
It was only on 5 December that Maksym’s parents even learned where their son is being held. As reported, he had disappeared after the ‘court hearing’ on 22 August 2023 which upheld Russia’s entirely illegal 13-year sentence. From then until the beginning of December, Russia’s Penal Service had refused to provide Maksym’s lawyer Leonid Solovyov with any information as to his whereabouts. It is now, however, known that he is being held prisoner in occupied Khrustalny (Krasny Luch) in Luhansk oblast.
Russia is using fake ‘courts’ in its proxy ‘Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics’ to ensure minimum access to information about the horrific ‘sentences’ being passed against Ukrainian POWs in flagrant violation of international law. By continuing to hold Maksym in occupied Ukraine, Moscow is also increasing his isolation, with international monitors denied access. There is no way of providing an address for letters from abroad, and Oleksandr Butkevych reported earlier that his son had only been passed one birthday card, although very many people had written.
46-year-old Maksym Butkevych is well-known both in Ukraine and abroad, especially in the UK where he studied and also worked for a while at the BBC. Before the full-scale invasion, he had coordinated the work of the Without Borders Human Rights Project which worked in defence of asylum seekers facing deportation from Ukraine to Russia, Belarus or other countries where they faced persecution. He is also co-founder of the ZMINA Human Rights Centre and Hromadske Radio.
Maksym joined Ukraine’s Armed Forces within days of Russia’s full-scale invasion and was soon put in charge of a platoon which was sent to the Luhansk oblast in the second half of June 2022. He and his men were seized by the Russian invaders on, or around, 24 June near the village of Myrna Dolyna.
It became clear within days of his capture that Russia was aware of Butkevych’s identity, was deliberately waging a smear campaign against him and planned to put him ‘on trial’ in the unrecognized ‘Luhansk republic’ with no access to international observers, the media or an independent lawyer. Russia’s Investigative Committee announced three ‘sentences’ on 10 March 2023, against Maksym Butkevych and two other POWs, Viktor Pokhoziy and Vladislav Shelya. All three had clearly provided the supposed ‘confessions’ under torture, and had been sentenced by the illegitimate ‘Luhansk people’s republic supreme court’ four days earlier, on 6 March.
Butkevych was, like the other men, convicted of violating the rules of war under Article 356 § 1 of Russia’s criminal code. He was also charged with ‘attempted murder’ (30 § 3) and deliberate damage to property under Article 105 § 2.a, 2e. It was claimed that on 4 June 2022, Butkevych had shelled the entrance to an apartment block in Sievierodonetsk, with a mother and daughter giving ‘testimony’ as the supposed victims. These two individuals did not appear in ‘court’ on 22 August 2023, and another supposed ‘victim’ sent a statement claiming that he had incurred ‘significant damage’, but also failed to appear. As well as the 13-year harsh-regime term of imprisonment, Butkevych was also ordered to pay three alleged ‘victims’ substantial amounts in ‘compensation’ (a million roubles each to the two supposed victims of ‘attempted murder’ and 600 thousand to a third individual).
There is evidence that Butkevych’s platoon was only sent to Donbas on 14 June at the earliest. Not only was Butkevych not in Sievierodonetsk on 4 June, as Russia is claiming, but there is correspondence confirming that he was in Kyiv oblast over the first two weeks of June.
The sentences on 10 March 2023 were very widely condemned, with Human Rights Watch blasting that against Maksym .
Although the ‘appeal hearing’ was held in Russia, at the first court of appeal in Moscow, all aspects of the farce continued on 22 August 2023. ‘Judges’ Pavel Vladimirovich Melekhin (presiding); Larissa Sergeyevna Izotyeva and Yury Viktorovich Troyan ignored Butkevych’s status as a prisoner of war and evidence that he had been elsewhere at the time he was alleged to have committed the ‘crimes’ of which he was accused. The only concession was that the court agreed to count the sentence from 19 August 2022, rather than 6 March 2022. This certainly reduces the illegal sentence but is as fabricated as everything else, since Maksym had been in captivity since around 24 June 2022. The later date was merely when the defence ministry admitted to his imprisonment.