The exchange, originally agreed between the presidents of Ukraine and Russia at the December 9, 2019, Normandy Summit, is over and the Russian-controlled Donbas “republics” have handed over 12 Ukrainian prisoners of war and 64 civilian hostages. (Four of the people released have families in the occupied Donbas and chose to remain there.)
Russia’s interpretation of the Minsk demand that prisoners are released “all for all” has always been highly specific, and the 80 Ukrainians freed were in exchange for 127 prisoners handed over to the so-called republics. Frustration and anger over the release of suspected Maidan killers, terrorists and others were always tempered by awareness of the hell many of the hostages were going through and the families longing for their release.
Among those who have finally returned home are Serhiy Glondar, whose wife learned she was expecting their second child the day he was taken prisoner, and Oleksandr Korinkov, who was captured after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s deceit at Minsk over the Battle of Debaltseve. Both men had been imprisoned since February 2015, with Bohdan Pantyushenko, another military man, held even longer.
Among the civilian hostages released are two journalists – Stanislav Aseyev and Oleh Halaziuk. Both men were clearly imprisoned, and Mr. Aseyev was sentenced to 15 years, because of their honesty when writing about life in the self-proclaimed “Donetsk people’s republic” (DPR). According to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), 17 of the hostages had been held prisoner since 2015-2016.
Moscow is illegally holding at least 87 political prisoners in occupied Crimea and Russia, the majority of whom are Crimean Tatars. Since 2017, the Russian occupiers have been systematically persecuting Crimean Tatar civic activists and journalists, and at very least 35 activists have either received or are facing monstrously long sentences, essentially for their civic position.
Ukraine’s representative on Crimea has stated that none of these political prisoners are forgotten and that efforts to release them are under way. Nonetheless, optimism is difficult, especially since the Kremlin openly uses prisoners as hostages and demands a huge ransom. It is becoming difficult to see whom Ukraine can still hand over.
There are also a very large number of hostages in the occupied Donbas who have not been returned. According to Valeria Lutkovska, Ukraine’s representative in the Contact Group on the Donbas, there are at least 300 people awaiting release, of whom only 100 have been confirmed by the militants and have documents. They include the following.
- Oleksandr Marchenko was recently declared a political prisoner by the renowned Memorial Human Rights Center. He is imprisoned in Russia after the DPR militants closely collaborated with Russia’s FSB (security service). He is charged in the Russian city of Krasnodar with illegally transporting military items from the Russian Federation, which is especially cynical since the 48-year-old Ukrainian was savagely tortured after returning to Donetsk to try to retrieve the car he had left when they fled in 2014 and then forcibly abducted from Ukrainian territory.
- Valery Matyushenko, 54, has been imprisoned in the DPR since July 15, 2017. His family had never concealed their pro-Ukrainian views, and shortly after Mr. Matyushenko disappeared, his wife, Tatyana, was directly warned that she would be next, and their son would end up in a children’s home.
- According to the East Human Rights Group, Serhiy Rusinov, a young student from Luhansk, was seized on August 24, 2018, and, at least in August 2019, was imprisoned in the self-proclaimed “Luhansk people’s republic” (LPR) with the charges against him and his sentence probably due to his pro-Ukrainian views. It was asserted by the so-called LPR ministry of state security that Mr. Rusinov was the organizer of a pro-Ukrainian terrorist group and actively supports pro-Ukrainian views. Human rights activists believe he was targeted because he often clicked “like” on posts expressing pro-Ukrainian views on social media.
- It was reported in December 2018 that Roman Sahaidak had been sentenced in the LPR to 13 years’ imprisonment with full confiscation of his property, after around 18 months’ imprisonment and after the militants also seized his father for some time. Now 31, he is a Krasnodon entrepreneur whose problems began soon after he refused to sell his part of the business to his then business partner, Oleksandr Ryasnoy. The latter had offered a very bad deal and, according to his sister, Mr. Sahaidak was also wary of Mr. Ryasnoy, in part for his willingness to denounce people to the so-called LPR ministry of state security. They had apparently agreed, around two weeks before Mr. Sahaidak was seized, that they would no longer work together.
Mr. Sahaidak was stopped on June 30, 2017, by armed men in military gear who forced him into their car. It seems that Mr. Ryasnoy had a relative in the so-called LPR ministry to whom he turned after not getting his way regarding sale of the business. The militants first tried to charge Mr. Sahaidak with a terrorist act that took place a week after he was seized. Here, as over his initial disappearance, it was the publicity that made the LPR ministry understand that such charges were too hopelessly flawed. They later began accusing him of “fraud” or, alternatively, “extortion” with respect to Mr. Ryasnoy.
- The most chilling silence is over Hryhoriy Sinchenko, a 28-year-old about whom nothing has been heard since DPR militants brought him, covered in blood, to his grandmother’s home and carried out a search, supposedly for explosives. None were found, however Mr. Sinchenko was taken away again and his mother has no information as to where the militants are holding him. It is believed that the DPR’s so-called ministry of state security suspects Mr. Sinchenko of involvement in blowing up a Donetsk radio tower on October 27, 2019 .
- At least eight military servicemen were not released. These were named in media reports as: Vitaly Chmil, Yuri Hordiychuk, Mykola Hrynenko, Andriy Kachynsky, Pavlo Korsun, Stanislav Panchenko and Viktor Shaidov.
One of the hostages just freed, Vasyl Savin mentioned Mr. Korsun as one of the men he had left behind in the Makiyivka maximum security prison. Others were Serhiy and Dmytro Karaberyush, Serhiy Mazurov, Oleksandr Shelest, Volodymyr Sinyukov, as well as Maxim Timofeyev. The latter, who has second group disability status was not released, though his mother, who is in a wheelchair, was. Mr. Savin also mentioned Hennady Matviychuk, a miner who, he says, has a broken back, with a metal insert for a part of the spine which is missing. He mentioned three other names, though only their surnames: Tverdy, Samdurov and Matyushenko (see above). Some of the men had been on the exchange list, yet were suddenly removed.
Mr. Savin also confirmed what the militants deny, but many other witnesses have also spoken of: the existence of secret prisons. He said that it’s like in the Middle Ages, with torture and confessions beaten out of people. “When Putin lies that they don’t have their prisons there, I feel like spitting at the screen,” Mr. Savin commented.
He mentioned also that the information blockade is another instrument for influence that Russia uses and says that the prisoners try to listen to Ukrainian media. He stresses how important it is that the Ukrainian media mention them and the fact that there are hostages in the occupied Donbas every day. The prisoner get beaten for it, but they do hear this, he explained. Mr. Savin had been in captivity since May 2015.
The above are only a few of prisoners still being held. It is important to bear in mind that in both Russian proxy “republics” and in Russian-occupied Crimea, persecution is ongoing and new arrests can certainly be expected.