Re­mem­ber po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers

The Ukrainian Week - - SOCIETY -

Hen­nadiy Afanasiev is a for­mer po­lit­i­cal prisoner, a “ter­ror­ist from the Sentsov group” and an ac­tivist. When the Rus­sian oc­cu­pa­tion of Crimea be­gan, he joined civil re­sis­tance. As a re­sult, the Rus­sians ar­rested him in Sim­fer­opol. Rus­sia ac­cused him of par­tic­i­pat­ing in a ter­ror­ist group, com­mit­ting two ter­ror­ist at­tacks, pre­par­ing another one and ac­quir­ing arms il­le­gally. With these “crimes”, he was fac­ing seven years at a high-se­cu­rity pri­son and another 1.5 years of travel re­stric­tions once out of that jail. Hen­nadiy was tor­tured at the pre­trial stage into a plea bar­gain He wit­nessed against film di­rec­tor Oleh Sentsov and ac­tivist Olek­sandr Kolchenko and ad­mit­ted the en­gage­ment in crimes he was charged with. Later, he with­drew his tes­ti­mony. In Oc­to­ber 2015, Hen­nadiy was trans­ferred to the colony to serve the term. In June 2016, along with another Ukrainian prisoner in Rus­sia, the 74-year old Yuriy Soloshenko, Hen­nadiy was swapped for the or­ga­niz­ers of the “Be­sara­bia Peo­ple's Repub­lic”, Olena Hlishchyn­ska and Vi­taliy Di­denko.

“When we were re­leased, I couldn't be­lieve that so many cars were there to take us through Moscow's rush hour to the air­port and a pri­vate jet from Ukraine,” Hen­nadiy re­calls. “I couldn't be­lieve it was all done for us. When you stand on the Rus­sian soil, you can't help think­ing that the Rus­sians will change their mind now, or some­thing will hap­pen. We were met by Svi­atoslav Tse­holko (Pres­i­dent Poroshenko's Press Of­fi­cer – Ed.), Iryna Herashchenko (En­voy for the Set­tle­ment of the Con­flict in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts – Ed.), jour­nal­ists, pi­lots. Ev­ery­one was say­ing some­thing, and we were feel­ing em­bar­rassed, we didn't know what was go­ing on. They served us lunch but we barely ate even though we were re­ally hun­gry. When we landed, me and Yuriy left the air­plane and em­braced. There were no re­porters. We stood there and looked at the sky, the clouds. That was the most pow­er­ful sen­sa­tion. I didn't fully re­al­ize that it was all over for me even three-four months af­ter I re­turned to Ukraine,” Hen­nadiy says.

Once back in Ukraine, he re­sumed his ac­tivism. He takes part in ral­lies to sup­port po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in Rus­sia, Crimean Tatars and others. Like Yuriy Yat­senko, another 25-year old Maidan ac­tivist and ex-prisoner in Rus­sia, Hen­nadiy has joined the Min­istry of For­eign Af­fairs as spe­cial rep­re­sen­ta­tive and vol­un­teer ad­vi­sor to For­eign Min­is­ter Pavlo Klimkin. Also, he works with the Cen­ter for Civil Lib­er­ties, the ini­tia­tor of the Let My Peo­ple Go me­dia cam­paign. In co­op­er­a­tion with Crimea SO SNGO, Hen na di yd eve loped an in­ter­ac­tive map on hu­man rights vi­o­la­tion in Crimea

“When I re­turned to Crimea af­ter Maidan, the oc­cu­pa­tion be­gan,” he shares. “At that point, I took a clear po­si­tion and helped or­ga­nize ral­lies. I re­al­ized that I was do­ing a se­ri­ous thing that could af­fect some­thing. It was then that I felt my­self as a real citizen of the coun­try. As I re­turned home now from Rus­sia, I re­al­ize that many Ukraini­ans re­main there and they need help. Also, I have unique ev­i­dence. This in­for­ma­tion should be used, and we are do­ing just that on the in­ter­na­tional arena in­volv­ing more and more friends for Ukraine. Now, I'm try­ing to join help aimed at help­ing in the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of vet­er­ans, help­ing their fam­i­lies. We are in war and I can't stay aside.”

In the en­vi­ron­ment cre­ated by the Rus­sian puni­tive sys­tem, it is im­por­tant for the Ukrainian po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers to feel sup­port from so­ci­ety, es­pe­cially as the num­ber of Ukraini­ans de­tained in Rus­sia has grown to over 40. This sup­port is shown through ral­lies and let­ters from Ukraine. Hen­nadiy says that peo­ple here should re­act to the “tes­ti­mony” of Ukraini­ans in Rus­sia with cau­tion. Rus­sian law en­forcers know good ways to per­suade peo­ple, Hen­nadiy says.

“Our po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers should know how much sup­port they have from Ukrainian so­ci­ety. Un­for­tu­nately, how­ever, this doesn't help when you're tor­tured. When the Rus­sians ap­plied elec­tric shock tor­ture to An­driy Zakhtey and Yevhen Panov (two other Ukraini­ans ar­rested by the Rus­sians – Ed.), they be­gan to “tes­tify”. They can hardly be crit­i­cized for this. It's just the way the Rus­sians work. They tor­ture peo­ple. Of course, these guys with­drew their tes­ti­mony as soon as lawyers vis­ited them,” Hen­nadiy says.

The let­ters to Ukrainian pris­on­ers in Rus­sia play an im­por­tant role in their lives. On De­cem­ber 21, hu­man rights ac­tivists launched a marathon to write and send let­ters to Ukraini­ans in Rus­sian jails. Ac­cord­ing to Hen­nadiy, if there are many let­ters, they can af­fect the way the in­mates are treated by the pri­son ad­min­is­tra­tion. Also, the let­ters help take the im­pris­on­ment eas­ier be­cause the in­mate can spend his free time read­ing let­ters and writ­ing back. In ad­di­tion to let­ters, peo­ple can help by join­ing ral­lies in sup­port of the pris­on­ers.

“Every rally at­tracts the me­dia. The more me­dia cover it, the more chances we have to speak about the names of pris­on­ers on the in­ter­na­tional arena. And reach out to Euro­pean MPs, so that they see the sit­u­a­tion se­ri­ously and re­al­ize that this is no joke. This out­cry pre­vents tor­ture. That's how we man­aged to get Crimean Tatar ac­tivist Ilmi Umerov from the men­tal hospi­tal,” Hen­nadiy adds. Yet, a num­ber of prob­lem re­mains. One is the lack of the po­lit­i­cal prisoner sta­tus de­fined in law. Also, the state does not give fi­nan­cial sup­port to the pris­on­ers or their fam­i­lies, Hen­nadiy ex­plains. It costs Olek­sandr Kolchenko's mother UAH 25,000 to travel and see her son.

“It's ex­tremely ex­pen­sive,” Hen­nadiy says. “It's also ex­pen­sive to send him things from here. Even a cam­paign to write and send let­ters brings about some ex­penses. Also, we have over 70 chil­dren whose fa­thers are kept away by the Rus­sian puni­tive sys­tem. When­ever you want to take these kids for a va­ca­tion abroad, you need con­sent of their par­ents. And one of the par­ents is in a Rus­sian jail. Then we try to ne­go­ti­ate and send them to va­ca­tion camps in Ukraine. Be­cause these chil­dren live in con­stant stress and they need to get rest. What if they get sick? Or some­thing bad hap­pens? I don't mean that we have to sup­port these fam­i­lies. But I think that Ukrainian so­ci­ety can help out fi­nan­cially. That's where I plan to fo­cus my work. We're not talk­ing bil­lions here. We are fi­nal­iz­ing the es­tab­lish­ment of an NGO that will have a broad range of tasks. I have never done any­thing like this be­fore. But I have to learn,” Hen­nadiy con­cludes.

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