So many sus­pects, so lit­tle ev­i­dence:

On June 14, it was a year since the last ex­change of Ukrainian po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in Rus­sia took place. Noth­ing has hap­pened in all that time to make a swap more likely

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Stanislav Ko­zliuk

Ukrainian pris­on­ers in Rus­sia and Crimea

One year ago, Pres­i­dent Poroshenko’s of­fi­cial so­cial page an­nounced: “Yuriy Soloshenko and Ghen­nadiy Afanasiyev are on board a Ukrainian jet as we speak and leav­ing Moscow for Ukraine. We’ve fought so long to reach this goal!” And on June 14, 2016, the two men did in­deed re­turn to their home­land from Rus­sian cap­tiv­ity. They had been ex­changed for the or­ga­niz­ers of the “Peo­ple’s Coun­cil of Bes­sara­bia,” Olena Hlishchyn­ska and Vi­taliy Di­denko. Prior to that, Ukraine ex­changed Rus­sian spe­cial forces of­fi­cers Alek­sandr Alek­san­drov and Yevgheni Yero­feyev for Ukrainian pi­lot Na­dia Savchenko. With this, the process of re­turn­ing Ukrainian captives ended. True, Mustafa Dzhemilev’s son Haiser re­turned from Rus­sian prison, as did Yuriy Ilchenko, who was ac­cused of ex­trem­ism. But these few cases can hardly be de­scribed as an “ex­change process.” Haiser Dzhemilev had al­ready served his sen­tence, for all in­tents and pur­poses, while Ilchenko fled from Crimea to main­land Ukraine.

Mean­while, the num­ber of Ukraini­ans and Crimean Tatars who have been trapped by Rus­sia’s forces agen­cies has only grown. Take the case of the “Crimean di­ver­sion­ary group,” which in­cludes at least 9 men: Yevhen Panov, An­driy Zakhtiy, Volodymyr Prysych, Ry­d­van Suleimanov, Dmytro Shty­b­likov, Olek­siy Bes­sarabov, Volodymyr Dudko, Hlib Sh­abliy, and Olek­siy Stohniy. The nine were ar­rested in two phases, the first four in Au­gust 2016, while other five found them­selves be­hind bars in Novem­ber. By then, Prysych had al­ready been handed down a sen­tence of three years in prison un­der Art. 228 of the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion’s Crim­i­nal Code—il­le­gal acquisition, pos­ses­sion, trans­port, prepa­ra­tion and pro­cess­ing of nar­cotic sub­stances.

Of course, this sen­tence had noth­ing at all to do with the rea­son for his ar­rest, which was “sab­o­tage.” Prysych him­self dur­ing his fi­nal state­ment in court de­clared that the ac­cu­sa­tion of pos­ses­sion and trans­porta­tion of nar­cotic sub­stances was com­pletely fab­ri­cated by the FSB. He ex­plained that the for­bid­den sub­stances were planted and that he was forced to sign the pro­to­col with his sup­posed con­fes­sion in or­der to avoid an even more se­ri­ous fab­ri­cated crime.

In ad­di­tion to “sab­o­tage and di­ver­sion,” it ap­pears that Rus­sia hasn’t for­got­ten about the cases where peo­ple have been ac­cused of “es­pi­onage.” Un­der these ar­ti­cles, Rus­sia tried the now-re­leased Soloshenko, as well as Valentyn Vy­hivskiy and Vik­tor Shur, who re­main im­pris­oned in Rus­sia. At the be­gin­ning of Oc­to­ber 2016, yet an­other “sus­pect” ap- peared on the hori­zon: UkrIn­form jour­nal­ist Ro­man Sushchenko. Sushchenko had been the new agency’s Paris correspondent since 2010 and worked in Stras­bourg. He de­cided to go to Rus­sia to visit fam­ily and on Oc­to­ber 2, he was due back in Ukraine. In­stead, he turned up in the in­fa­mous Le­for­tovo jail. Im­me­di­ately af­ter his ar­rest, the In­ter­na­tional and European Fed­er­a­tions of Jour­nal­ists and the European Al­liance of News Agen­cies Coun­cil turned to the Krem­lin with a de­mand to re­lease the jour­nal­ist. Re­porters With­out Bor­ders added their weight to the de­mand. Of­fi­cial agen­cies in Ukraine also ar­gued that the jour­nal­ist could not have been a spy. Rus­sia, of course, ig­nored the state­ments, de­mands and ap­peals, leav­ing Sushchenko be­hind bars. In­stead the FSB in­sisted that Sushchenko was a “ca­reer spy” and was sup­pos­edly gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion about the RF Armed Forces. The Krem­lin’s re­sponse was that ar­rest­ing the jour­nal­ist was “a stan­dard op­er­a­tion by the se­cu­rity ser­vice.”

Mark Fey­gin, the Rus­sian lawyer famed for his work with Pussy Riot and Nadiya Savchenko, took it upon him­self to rep­re­sent the Ukrainian jour­nal­ist. In May, he told Ukrin­form jour­nal­ists that the ma­te­ri­als in the case had al­ready ex­tended to some 10 vol­umes, while in­ves­tiga­tive ac­tiv­ity, in his words, was in a state of sus­pended an­i­ma­tion. In the eight months since Sushchenko was taken and im­pris­oned, his de­fense tried to change the pre­ven­tive mea­sures in vain: the de­ci­sion of the Rus­sian “court” has not been al­tered.

In ad­di­tion to Sushchenko, it’s quite likely that free­lance Ra­dio Svo­boda (RFE/RL) jour­nal­ist Mykola Se­mena will end up sen­tenced. In April 2016, the FSB filed a crim­i­nal case against him on the ba­sis of an ar­ti­cle he had writ­ten that sup­pos­edly in­cluded “calls to vi­o­late the ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity of the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion.” At the end of Jan­uary, the jour­nal­ist was handed down an in­dict­ment for “separatism.” It seems that Rus­sia’s se­cu­rity ser­vices found in­di­ca­tions of a call to vi­o­late the ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity of the RF in an ar­ti­cle called “Block­ade: The first manda­tory step to free­ing Crimea.” This case has al­ready moved to court hear­ings. Ukraine’s For­eign Min­istry has de­manded on more than one oc­ca­sion that Rus­sia stop the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Se­mena and Sushchenko, most re­cently on June 6, Jour­nal­ists’ Day.

“Since this is Jour­nal­ists’ Day, we de­mand, once again, that the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion stop its po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion of jour­nal­ists Sushchenko and Se­mena,” said MFA Spokesper­son Mar­i­ana Betsa on her Twit­ter page.

In ad­di­tion to the per­se­cu­tion of Ukraini­ans in Crimea, pres­sure con­tin­ues on Crimean Tatars with the ap­pli­ca­tion of anti-ter­ror­ist leg­is­la­tion, in­clud­ing with ref­er­ence to pos­si­ble mem­bers of Hizb utTahrir, which is banned in Rus­sia, and par­tic­i­pants in the demon­stra­tion out­side the Crimean leg­is­la­ture in Fe­bru­ary 2014. An en­tire se­ries of cases is still go­ing be­fore the “courts.” Mean­while, quite a few Crimean Tatars have al­ready been sen­tenced. Rus­lan Zeit­ul­layev, who was in­volved in the case of Crimean Mus­lims, was sen­tenced to 12 years hard la­bor for or­ga­niz­ing a lo­cal cen­ter of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Crimea, al­though the or­ga­ni­za­tion re­mains quite le­gal in Ukraine. He protested openly against the per­se­cu­tion of his fel­low Crimeans and went on a hunger strike sev­eral times. Zeit­ul­layev de­manded that the RF gov­ern­ment stop per­se­cut­ing Crimean Tatars for “ex­trem­ism” and “ter­ror­ism,” that it re­lease other de­fen­dants in the Crimean Mus­lim case, and that it al­low mem­bers of the press to visit him. How­ever, the per­se­cu­tions con­tinue.

What’s more, this year has made it ob­vi­ous that not only ac­tivists with a clearly pro-Ukrainian po­si­tion are now un­der threat of per­se­cu­tion, but any­one who as­sisted them, in­clud­ing af­ter their ar­rests. One highly-pub­li­cized in­ci­dent is the ar­rest of Emil Kurbe­di­nov, the lawyer de­fend­ing Crimean Mus­lims. At the end of Jan­uary, the de­fender was go­ing to one of the ac­tivists for a search when a pa­trol stopped him. Even­tu­ally he was sent to the court where he was sub­jected to 10 days of de­ten­tion. In ad­di­tion, the lawyer’s of­fice was searched and his com­put­ers and other equip­ment seized.

Not long ago, the FSB tried to de­tain an­other lawyer, Niko­lai Polo­zov, who is de­fend­ing Ilma Ymerov, in or­der to in­ter­ro­gate him. Rights ac­tivists spoke about pres­sure be­ing put on lawyers work­ing in Crimea and try­ing to de­fend Crimean Tatars. Be­yond this, from time to time, news comes out about the lat­est searches of ac­tivist apart­ments in Crimea.

“This year, the in­ves­ti­ga­tions have moved to a dif­fer­ent level,” says Olek­san­dra Matviy­chuk, co­or­di­na­tor at Euro­maidan SOS and an ac­tivist in the Let My Peo­ple Go cam­paign. “Ear­lier we could see a grow­ing num­ber of cases of po­lit­i­cal pres­sure on peo­ple, whereas now we are see­ing per­se­cu­tions of those who help the po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers: their lawyers, those who bring them parcels, and so on. This means that the barom­e­ter of un­free­dom in the oc­cu­pied penin­sula has reached a crit­i­cal level.”

Right now, the rights ac­tivists’ list has 44 names on it, but there could turn out to be more.

“Our list has the names of 44 in­di­vid­u­als who are be­hind bars for po­lit­i­cal rea­sons in oc­cu­pied Crimea and Rus­sia,” adds Matviy­chuk,” and we al­ways em­pha­size ‘at least.’ Not long ago I spoke with some Crimeans and they con­firmed that the num­ber of such peo­ple has grown but rights ac­tivists sim­ply haven’t come across them yet. We’re about to look at the sit­u­a­tion more closely and to ver­ify this in­for­ma­tion.”

How­ever, since June 2016, not only has the num­ber of po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers grown. On Oc­to­ber 12, the Par­lia­men­tary As­sem­bly of the Coun­cil of Eu-


rope (PACE) passed two res­o­lu­tions on Ukraine that are con­nected to Crimea and Don­bas. First, PACE con­demned the annexation of the Ukrainian penin­sula by Rus­sia and con­firmed se­ri­ous vi­o­la­tions of hu­man rights in Crimea. Se­condly, it em­pha­sized the “in­de­pen­dence of the courts,” and the per­se­cu­tion and pres­sure bring put on Crimean Tatars liv­ing there. PACE went on to de­mand that re­pres­sions against res­i­dents who re­mained loyal to Ukraine be stopped, that the Me­jlis be al­lowed to func­tion prop­erly as the rep­re­sen­ta­tive body of the Crimean Tatars, and that the move­ment of pris­on­ers from Crimea to Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion ter­ri­tory cease.

At the same time, a 2017 UN re­port on hu­man rights notes a huge num­ber of “un­de­sir­able trends” in this sphere: ig­nor­ing the guar­an­tee of a fair and just trial, us­ing back­dated crim­i­nal laws, and beat­ing in­di­vid­u­als who are de­tained. The UN also an­nounced that it is now reg­is­ter­ing cases where peo­ple im­pris­oned in Crimea are be­ing moved to jails in Rus­sia, which is in vi­o­la­tion of in­ter­na­tional hu­man­i­tar­ian laws.

At this time, how­ever, it looks un­likely that res­o­lu­tions or ap­peals will ac­tively in­flu­ence the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment. What’s more, in the year since the last pris­oner ex­change, it’s not even known who the po­ten­tial can­di­dates are for a swap with Moscow. It looks like, so far, there has been no pos­i­tive break­through in free­ing po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers in Rus­sia. The best ex­am­ple of this is film­maker Oleh Sentsov, who is into his fourth year be­hind bars now. Fa­mous ac­tors, di­rec­tors and hu­man rights ac­tivists have all spo­ken on be­half of Sentsov, but so far the re­sults are pretty much zero. Nev­er­the­less, lawyers, ac­tivists and defenders con­tinue the fight to re­lease the Krem­lin’s captives. It’s go­ing to be a long and dirty fight.

Re­pressed in Crimea. Emil Kurbe­di­nov (left) and Rus­lan Zeit­ul­layev (right)

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