Remember political prisoners
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.