The Kremlin’s release of Ukrainian political prisoners hardly made headlines in the world and domestic media this year but also does not arouse lively and engaged interest on the part of Ukrainian society. Solitary pickets and the desperate attempts of relatives and friends of the Moscow regime’s prisoners to draw the attention of the Ukrainian authorities, foreign diplomats and the most active part of society to this urgent problem do not inspire optimism. Sympathy and an attempt to understand can hardly be noticed in the eyes of my interlocutors. More often it is indifference, surprise, and a lack of any human reaction.
A year has passed since Ukraine managed to secure the return 11 political prisoners and 24 sailors, who were captured at various times and unlawfully detained in the Russian Federation for years. Since then, there have been two more waves of hostages and political prisoners released from the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine’s eastern regions. Unfortunately, 135 Ukrainian citizens (at the time of writing) are still considered political hostages of the war waged by Russia. 135 families are waiting for their fathers, husbands, brothers and grandfathers. They are real heroes, who face the challenge of fate with dignity in isolation, going through new difficulties all the time – including changes of cells and colonies, the pressure of prisons administration, repeat offenders, and the FSB, the cold climate, terrible food and medical care, a lack of information, and the risk of catching COVID-19.
Last September, a special initiative was launched together with Mark Feygin. It aimed to offer the international community an opportunity to create an effective mechanism, primarily diplomatic, and to establish rules and arrangements to help prevent the emergence of new political prisoners. The aim is to exclude this humanitarian aspect from the existing confrontation. In the meantime, a number of consultations with diplomats, experts, journalistic community and lawyers have been held.
Discussions have been held in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, in foreign and Ukrainian embassies, and in the international arena. Oleksii Makieiev, a former political director and currently the special representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on sanctions policy, strongly supported this idea. With the appointment of Emine Japarova to the position of First Deputy Foreign Minister, the idea became more specific. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs initiated the establishment of the international action platform on Russia’s release of Ukrainian political prisoners. Its inaugural meeting took place on 1 July 2020 in a videoconference format. It was joined by the representatives of the Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories, the President’s Office, the Permanent Representative of the President of Ukraine in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, by the Verkhovna Rada Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as the representatives of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, non-governmental human rights organisations, and the relatives of unlawfully detained persons. Metropolitan Clement of the Crimean Diocese of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (PCU) and other religious and public figures agreed to participate in the work of the platform.
The international platform has a serious chance of becoming an additional means of pressure on Russia, and the purpose of its action is the protection and release of Ukrainian citizens – prisoners of the Kremlin. Among the tasks of initiated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the coordination of the international advocacy activities of all parties involved, including public authorities, civil society, and the relatives of political prisoners, and to increase international pressure on Russian authorities in order to release unlawfully detained persons and protect their rights. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Office of the Verkhovna Rada Commissioner for Human Rights are actively commenting on all facts of human rights violations by the Russian Federation and the application of repressive practices against Ukrainian citizens in the temporarily occupied territories.
Human rights and non-governmental organizations call for attention to this problem. In particular, a group of Kremlin political prisoners from the Crimea appealed to the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. They demand that the authorities “organise and promote decisive action against the aggressor state.” The authors of the appeal offer a number of active diplomatic and preventive actions against the Kremlin regime, including the General Assembly’s termination of Russia’s veto right in the UN Security Council, the practice of prosecuting Russian officials guilty of repression against Ukrainian citizens, as well as new economic sanctions, revision of the Montreux Convention, and a change of the Sea of Azov’s status.
Ukraine’s proactive position has also helped to find like-minded people in Europe, in particular in France. A well-known public figure, French philosopher, and editor-in-chief of Philosophie magazine, Michel Eltchaninoff, commenced to implement the idea of organising international public events to protect new dissidents a few years ago. Last year, the idea provided the basis for the Festival des Nouveaux Dissidents project, which was scheduled to take place in Paris at La Villette this summer. The organisers’ idea is to arrange three days of multi-format discussions, numerous meetings, exchanges of views and experiences, performances, and film screenings with dissidents from around the world, as well as the presentation of a special program on freedom and democracy, designed for children.
Michel Eltchaninoff is convinced that “new dissidents” revive the struggle of last century’s dissidents in a nonviolent and open way. They come up with clever and creative ways to challenge authoritarianism and abuse of power, and they fight alone with films, texts, and drawings or works of art, often along with indifference or rejection. “We want to create a space for self-expression and dialogue between dissidents around the world who often do not have a clue what is happening elsewhere. They will be able to share their experiences and explain what is happening in their countries,” Mr Eltchaninoff added in an interview. Dozens of French and foreign media confirmed their participation in the event. Victims of political repression and authoritarian regimes were also invited. Due to the spread of COVID-19, the organisers of the festival decided to postpone the international event until 2021.
The Office of the Verkhovna Rada Commissioner for Human Rights demonstrates effective competencies in the release process. Liudmyla Denisova reacts to the occupier’s repression immediately. Following the recent crimes against the families of the Kremlin’s prisoners, the ombudsman appealed to the First Lady of Ukraine to take the families of political prisoners under her patronage and called on government leaders to take personal care of every child living with a mother in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine. She also called on the parliament to urgently pass a bill to regulate the legal status and social protection of persons, illegally deprived of their liberty as a result of armed aggression against Ukraine, and members of their families. Appealing to international governmental and non-governmental organisations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ukraine, Denisova suggested that they provide humanitarian assistance to the children of the Kremlin’s prisoners and help intensify the fight for the release of their parents on the international arena.
The events in Belarus and the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny are forcing Ukraine’s Western partners and allies to take concrete action. The introduction of more severe sanctions against authoritarian regimes by the West is inevitable. The strict and principled demand for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners and hostages of the six-year war waged by Russia must demonstrate the political will and consolidated position of a civilization that upholds the democratic and sustainable development of humankind.
Roman Sushchenko, a famous Ukrainian journalist, former political prisoner of the Kremlin, Ukrinform correspondent in Paris, and now in Kyiv