Does Ukraine have a strategy to release other "Kremlin’s hostages"?

18:00, 26 May 2016
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Nadia Savchenko’s return May 25 was really long-awaited. Very few were aware of the detail of her return, and only after the presidential plane landed in Boryspil were the technical peculiarities published in media and social networks. As expected, when dealing with the Kremlin, legal procedures are nothing while political arrangements are everything.

In fact, the so-called "Estonian scenario" was implemented, that is the release and swap after a presidential pardon. However, because of Nadia Savchenko’s categorical refusal to any go for a compromise and request pardon from Vladimir Putin, the negotiators had to look outside the box. So the next thing we saw was the widows of the two Russian journalists killed in Donbas “turned” to their president with a corresponding request (I put quotation marks as the gesture was most likely not upon their own will).

This indicates that the search for a formula of the prisoners’ release is a matter of skills. And no legal puzzles will ever hinder the process if there is a fundamental agreement on the swap. That is why the Ministry of Justice in most cases with the other "hostages of the Kremlin" has no leading role, unlike actual negotiators and those whose political will may affect the process of talks.

My colleagues and I have for a year and a half been dealing with the problem of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia and Crimea. During this period, the list of such people has grown threefold. But only two of them have returned to Ukraine from Russian captivity: a Lviv student Yuriy Yatsenko, who had been freed a year ago, and a Ukrainian female pilot and MP Nadia Savchenko.

We hope that we won’t have to wait for years for the return of the rest of the hostages. Moreover, the defendant in a "Crimean Four" case convicted of "terrorism" Hennadiy Afanasyev and Yuriy Soloshenko sentenced for "espionage" have already been transferred to a temporary detention facility Lefortovo in Moscow, as their condition is perhaps the worst among the other Ukrainian hostages. The fact that Afanasyev was brought to Moscow from the Komi Republic, which is some 1,500 km away, and given yesterday's statement by the president, signal that soon, he and Yuriy Soloshenko will return to Ukraine. However, details of the talks on their release are not disclosed.

According to the list of a LetMyPeopleGo project, 31 Ukrainian citizens have been illegally imprisoned in Russia and Crimea. All hostages among those held in the Russian Federation have already convicted. Earlier today, the Supreme Court of the Chechen Republic sentenced handed down a verdict in a so-called "Chechen" case, in which Mykola Karpyuk and Stanislav Klykh were the defendants.

Having seen all these verdicts, it is high time we ask ourselves: what is the future strategy of Ukraine for the release of its citizens?

Obviously, we are now facing several important challenges.

Firstly, it is necessary to coordinate the efforts of various government agencies and defense teams of the detainees, their relatives and human rights activists in order to create a formal or informal association or a group to deal with tactical and strategic issues related to the release of the Ukrainians wrongfully imprisoned in Russia. The prototype of such a group existed at the Foreign Ministry, but the current situation requires a higher level of coordination. It is unlikely that President Poroshenko engage as much in the release of other hostages, as it was in the Savchenko case. Her release has become a problem not only of saving a particular life, but perhaps of the president’s own political survival...

I wish I could believe in the opposite, but there is a feeling that without active civil society, dust may cover the issue of the Ukrainian hostages and it can disappear from the agenda. We can’t let it happen. Especially given the fact that Nadia Savchenko has reiterated readiness to take up seriously the problem of remaining prisoners’ release. Perhaps, it will be she who will be able to lead this process.

Secondly, the same coordination is needed to effectively support the people who are imprisoned in the occupied Crimea, as well as their families. They are mostly Crimean Tatars, but also people of the Ukrainian origin. Besides, incarceration is only one form of pressure. The so-called Crimean authorities conduct searches on the peninsula almost on an everyday basis, while the ban of the Mejlis is hanging over the Crimean Tatar people as the sword of Damocles, as it at any moment may result in massive arrests.

The issue of support and protection of the people in the occupied territories is a serious challenge, addressing which properly will, among other things, become an investment in the future painless reintegration of Crimea in Ukraine.

Thirdly, it is necessary to continue political pressure on Russia by promoting the idea of introducing personal sanctions against individuals involved in human rights violations against the citizens of Ukraine in the Russian Federation and occupied Crimea. Meanwhile, Ukraine's efforts are quite chaotic. Intelligence operatives who took part in torturing the Ukrainians, the judges who knowingly handed down wrongful verdicts, investigators that kept the fabricated cases alive – all of these individuals must be known to Ukraine’s western partners and properly "noted."

We hope that our proposals for Ukraine’s strategic approach to the issue of liberating its citizens from Russian captivity will be heard. Among other things, perhaps, this will reduce the dangers of a slippery path Ukraine has stepped onto, having entrusted the talks on the fate of its citizens to a political relic of the post-Soviet past with family ties to Vladimir Putin.

Maria Tomak is a LetMyPeopleGo campaign coordinator at the Center for Civil Liberties

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