Zelensky Announces Second Stage of Prisoner Swap
Russia and Ukraine have exchanged 35 prisoners each, including Oleh Sentsov, Stanislav Klykh, and 24 sailors, which were detained during the Kerch Strait conflict
On Sep. 7, Ukraine and Russia held an exchange of prisoners in the 35-for-35 format. Eleven Ukrainians illegally convicted in Russia and 24 sailors detained near the Kerch Strait in late November 2018 were returned home.
After that, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the second stage of a prisoner swap between Ukraine and Russia as he hopes to release more Crimean Tatars from Russian captivity.
To talk more about this, we are joined in the studio by Oleksandr Pavlychenko, Executive Director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union.
– It’s an exciting time right now in Ukraine. Everyone’s happy that the 35 political prisoners and prisoners of war have returned. However, let’s start with the sailors. Twenty-four sailors are back on Ukrainian soil, however, they should have been released a long time ago. Is it truly a 35-for-35 or rather an 11-for-35 swap?
– Well, it was an equal release — 35 for 35 – and without the exact number that corresponds between the released sailors from one side – and we may say that even 11 persons released from the Russian side that corresponds to 35 persons that were released on the Ukrainian side. So it doesn’t matter, we have still the 35 persons returned to Ukraine with the hope that the process was not ended but it was just the beginning, and we have the open doors for the next steps that were announced.
And we expect that the Crimean Tatars that are in different penitentiary institutions in the Russian Federation or in Crimea, as well as the persons detained in an occupied non-controlled territory in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, will return to Ukraine as Ukrainian citizens and as persons that were detained without legal grounds and deprived of their liberties.
– Now, since 2014, 13,000 Ukrainians have lost their lives in Russia’s undeclared war with Ukraine. What motivated Vladimir Putin to do the exchange now?
– Good question, but we have to forward this question to Vladimir Putin because we are seeing some agreements that have some concrete results and we noticed such results in the release of the detained persons:
A — the promises or expectations on the next steps in this procedure.
B – some trends in the policy in non-controlled territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
And we expect that some movement will be realized in the nearest future, but we don’t know exactly what will be the result, and what is the ground of this agreement between the two sides of the conflict, because the Russian Federation has its own vision and we have not seen the concrete documents or concrete agreements, written documents that might explain the movement that has started. But still, we will see in the nearest future on the results that the movement is going on. And we expect that this movement is not bad.
– So how will the next steps look, is there a timeline for the next prisoner exchange?
– Yeah, I think that the negotiations are still going on, and we may have the next row of the persons who will be released on the Ukrainian side as well as in the Russian Federation or in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk non-controlled areas, that’s A.
B — I think that some links between the non-controlled territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions will be defrosted and deblocked, and we will see that the region, in general, will change the movement orientation from this “DPR” or “LPR” quasi-republic creation toward the return to Ukrainian integrity. So we will see.
I think I hope that it will be, but the final resolution of the conflict might be achieved only in a peaceful manner, and we expect that it will be the result of the negotiations at the high level. I think that now we are seeing the results of the big politics, but Ukraine is often not the subject, but the object of such politics. This is a problem, and that’s why we don’t see, even with, like, the wall, we may not see the whole football field. It’s a pity, but still, we should fight as much as possible for our independence, for integrity, and for our people.
– You said it was big politics, there was also big emotions at the airport when the prisoners came back. This certainly helped President Zelensky’s popularity.
What was Putin’s motivation? At the airport in Moscow, the situation looked quite different. What does this prisoner exchange do for him domestically? We know this summer he’s had a rough summer with the protests in Moscow and some in St. Petersburg, Moscow city elections were just yesterday, and he was given some clear signals. Will the prisoner exchange help him at all?
– It’s a question without a clear answer because, as I’ve said, we have the result of some negotiations and the appreciation of this result will come later. We, in Ukraine, considered it a very big success, and it was a really, kind of, big holiday (celebration) on Saturday when people just watched and received information about this release and the return of our 35 hostages.
In Russia, it was done in a completely different matter. They returned in silence and without big information about their future, about their destiny, about what will happen to them. And I doubt the happy future of Mr. Tsemakh, who is a witness in the MH17 case. And we will see the same picture that was developed in Russia on what is going on there with their prisoners, with their, I may not call them hostages because they were sentenced for very, very concrete criminal acts with very obvious reasons, and they were returned to this country.
Some of them are not even Russian by citizenship, they are Ukrainian, but still they, let’s say, played or represented the Russian and pro-Russian interests and politics, and they worked for Russia in this war — hybrid war or even open war between the Russian Federation and Ukraine as a result of this aggression.
– Um, what do you think of the speculation that French President Emmanuel Macron played a role in the exchange? And if that’s indeed true, will this also affect the Normandy format?
– I’m not sure that it was the result of this proclaimed influence from the French president, but it might be, in any case, any such influence that brings to such positive results is very welcomed. And we expect that some key political players like Emmanuel Macron, probably, the German chancellor or the USA president may influence this process and facilitate this procedure with the release of Ukrainian hostages.
It doesn’t matter who will be, in name, responsible for this influence, but it is very important for us to get back our persons, our hostages that are now on the Russian territory or the territory controlled by pro-Russian forces.
– Okay, as someone that works for a human rights organization, do you have any opinions you would like to share with us about how the Ukrainian prisoners were treated while in the hands of the Kremlin?
– We have very concrete examples and facts on ill-treatment. Almost all of them, when we speak of the political prisoners, were subjected to ill-treatment, tortured, and, as a result, they expressed not fair witnesses or not real or truthful information, and their confessions were received very often, in almost all the cases, under pressure and with the use of torture or other prohibited behavior like in the Klykh situation when they were tortured with electricity.
We have the witnesses in our organization, in our database with concrete examples when persons deprived of liberty suffered from such inhumane treatment, especially in the first months of this occupation in Crimea or the non-controlled territory in Donetsk and Luhansk regions. They were beaten, they were tortured with other tools, with other crucial means, and the result was sometimes just to demonstrate the force and to suppress any resistance or break the will even without a confession, or just even to kill the person but not the easy way. We have very concrete examples, very concrete cases with names, times, and places where such crimes occurred.
And, well, it’s a task for the Ukrainian judiciary today and if we are unable to investigate such cases, then these are cases for international structures like the International Criminal Court. And I expect that Ukraine will be successful in the investigation of such cases in international institutions, and we will see how the International Criminal Court and other structures like the European Court on Human Rights in the interstate case will make the decision on the responsibility of each party in this aggression and the influence on the civil population and the correspondence to all the rules of international instruments like the Geneva Conventions, the European Convention on Human Rights.
And our task is to bring as much evidence of such violations as possible regardless of the sides that committed such violations with the aim to put an end to such violations. And we still keep in mind that the beginners of this story, the aggressor was the Russian Federation. The party that started this war from Crimea, then it was moved to the Donbas region with very grave consequences. We will have to overcome them, it’s another story, and we start to work with a transitional justice that will come to this territory when peace is established there. But even now we’re starting to put in place the cornerstones of this transitional justice system.