Prisoner swap: Ukraine has welcomed back the released from Donbas captivity
In the evening of Wednesday, a total of 74 Ukrainian citizens, soldiers and civilians, who’d been held in captivity in the non-government controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, were released in a major prisoner exchange. For the 1st time in 14 months, the procedure of exchange took place between Ukraine and the self-proclaimed authorities of the militant-controlled areas, as it was previously agreed by the sides of the TCG on conflict settlement in Eastern Ukraine. The exchange took place at Mayorske checkpoint near the city of Horlivka in Donetsk region, some 750 kilometers southeast from Kyiv. “Today's exchange is not only a humanitarian act but also a helpful step in confidence-building. We encourage the sides to continue their efforts to improve the life of people directly affected by the conflict," stated the OSCE chairperson-in-office on Wednesday in a joint statement on the organization's website.
Families of the released and other citizens have gathered at the airport near Kyiv to meet them. Some shared their emotional comments with Ukrainian Radio. “I haven’t seen him for almost 3,5 years, since August 2014. I haven’t heard his voice for 1 year and a half. And now he called and said “mom, I’m home”. I don’t know what happened next because I fainted”, said the mother of ex-detainee and Ukrainian military serviceman Oleksandr Oliynyk. “We’ve gone through suffering and torture, pain and illnesses, and above all through moral and psychological pressure. But we constantly felt the love of our people, of the ones who prayed for us and fought for us,” said one of the released, scientist and social activist Ihor Kozlovsky, at the gathering in the airfield. Later in an interview Ihor Kozlovsky, candidate of historical sciences, and head of several organizations in religious studies, spoke about life in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, and his captivity, which lasted for almost 2 years. Particularly, he told the media that the atmosphere of fear in DPR was similar to a totalitarian regime. Thus, according to him, one cannot tell about the number or character of pro-Ukrainian voices there.
The Ukrainian side handed over 233 rebels and their supporters. Several dozens of Kyiv-held captives refused to return in the occupied territory, having come to the exchange point to confirm their decision. Meanwhile, according to Iryna Lutsenko, Presidential Representative in the parliament, to release the rest of captives, who are still held in the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, the next round of negotiations is planned to take place shortly. “We hope it will continue, as not all the captives are released from neither side,” said Olga Kobtseva, representative of the LPR in the humanitarian subgroup of the TCG, reported Kyivpost.
While Ukrainian president has promised a "museum of occupation" created in the places of their detention after the liberation of Donbas. On Thursday during his visit in the city of Kharkiv he also reminded about Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia, the most outspoken of which are film director Oleg Sentsov and journalist Roman Sushchenko.
According to the Security Service of Ukraine, at least 3140 Ukrainians have been found and released from the Russian-occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the last three years.
Situation in the Donbas region: weekly review
After the so-called X-mas truce was established within the negotiations of the TCG on conflict settlement on December 20th, the situation hasn’t yet stabilized. More enemy strikes have been recorded in the Donbas war zone over the past week, as the Defense Ministry’s Press Service reported strict observance of the ceasefire by the Ukrainian side. Using weapons proscribed by the Minsk agreements, namely mortars and artillery, the combined Russian-separatist forces breached the New Year and Christmas truce throughout the week.
The intensity of enemy fire went up and down this week, having been the most significant on Wednesday and bringing multiple casualties among Ukrainian soldiers. The majority of armed strikes by the Russian-occupation forces concentrated in the Donetsk sector of defense in the areas north and north-west of Donetsk and northeast of Mariupol. In Luhansk sector, the spot where the enemy activity was the most intense in the past week was Stanytsia Luhanska north-east of Luhansk, and several spots southwest of Luhansk.
At a briefing in Kyiv on Friday, Defense Ministry spokesman Col. Oleksandr Motuzyanyk informed about the activity of the Russian army, citing military intelligence reports. “There is a force rotation of Russian military servicemen in the occupied Donbas territories. What is particular at this stage is personnel purges taking place in their units, which leads to inner conflicts among the leaders.”, said Col. Oleksandr Motuzyanyk.
Defense Ministry’s Press Service had also reported on the increase of psychological pressure upon the local population in the occupied since the latest truce, including through a massive propaganda campaign. “The Russian command of the Donbas militias instructed the heads of so-called “local self-governments” to submit lists of bomb shelters and to warn owners of buildings that they would have to give free access to basements in case of shelling by Ukrainian troops,” according to the Defense Ministry spokesperson citing military intelligence reports.
At the same time, the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office Karin Kneissl and Secretary General Thomas Greminger have also welcomed the news. In a joint statement on the OSCE website on Wednesday, they stressed that the prisoner swap between Ukraine and the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics, together with the lower number of ceasefire violations during the last several days, “represent a step forward to the peaceful resolution of the crisis in and around Ukraine.”
MFA Summing up 2017: Ukraine’s successes and further goals
Summing up the outgoing year, some of the successes and failures of Ukraine on the international arena have been discussed with Deputy Foreign Minister on European Integration Olena Zerkal. In an interview with 5th channel, she also explained Ukraine’s further plans and goals for 2018.
Deputy Foreign Minister Olena Zerkal said: “This year has been very positive in terms of protection of our interests in the international court institutions. Starting from the Hague, and to the resolutions concerning all the cases on Russia’s responsibility for the loss of investment in Crimea. In all the 5 arbitrary court hearings, Russia was admitted responsible for property loss.”
The main goal set for next year, according to her, remains the same, which is countering Russian aggression on the East. To that, protecting and advancing the interests of Ukraine and Ukrainians consistently, step by step, would mean further implementation of Ukraine’s association agreement with the EU, Deputy Foreign Minister said, being skeptical about the current situation on the matter. She also commented on the situation in the European Union in general, adding a bit of context to the prospects of Ukraine’s European aspirations. “We think the integration is a discussion. It is quite a complex process of transformation of societies. Currently the EU faces other type of debates, such as whether Poland, Romania and Hungary should have entered the Union before theor transformations would be completed,” said Olena Zerkal in relation to the reforming processes in Ukraine.
“We are all tired of negative information around the Ukrainian issues”, she said, suggesting that Ukraine was capable of doing better in implementing the association. Finally, Zerkal has also mentioned her hopes for this pre-election year in Ukraine to not lead to further multiplication of populism.
The #LetMyPeopleGo initiative has held its traditional New Year Marathon of Letters to Kremlin’s Hostages
The #LetMyPeopleGo initiative has held its traditional New Year Marathon of Letters to Kremlin’s Hostages. To share the warmth of winter holidays with those deprived of closeness to their loved ones, Euromaidan SOS and its partners have conducted a letter writing marathon for the fourth year in a row in support of prisoners held by the Kremlin on politically motivated charges.
More than 60 Ukrainian citizens will spend the winter holidays in cold Russian prisons this year. Every letter sent to them is “a breath of freedom”, civic activists stress. Campaign coordinator Maria Tomak comments: “Those are people not only detained in the Russian Federation but as well in the occupied Crimea. These are Ukrainian and Crimean Tatars who are detained for political reasons. We are advocating in Ukraine as well as on the international leve. We also try to assist relatives and lawyers because in some of the cases lawyers have no access to the prisoners. We try to assist relatives in finding the financing for the lawyers and we also call to the society to write letters to people who are detained and I can say it’s a very small thing but it’s very important for those who are kept in detention”.
Among the Kremlin’s hostages, there are students, people suffering from serious illnesses, leaders of the Crimean Tatar people, human rights activists, artists and journalists. Among those recently abducted are two Ukrainian border guards, who were detained on October 3, and are now in Russian custody; 19-year- old Pavlo Hryb, abducted by the FSB from Belarus and taken to Krasnodar where he is being held in detention without urgently needed medication; Oleksiy Sizonovych, a 61-year- old pensioner taken by force to Russia, where he was clearly put under pressure to refuse a proper lawyer and ‘confess’. He was sentenced in July 2017 to 12 years’ imprisonment; Oleksandr Shumkov is a 28-year- old civic activist from the Kherson oblast, who is facing insane charges of involvement in an organization which is legal in Ukraine, but banned as ‘extremist’ in Russia.
Russian authorities are very clearly trying to isolate all prisoners to put pressure on them, and to make the world forget about them. Letters from the outside show the Kremlin’s hostages that they are not forgotten, that there are people who remember and who care.
Biometric control on Ukrainian borders launched in test mode
Biometric control has been launched in the test mode on Ukrainian border crossing points on Wednesday. The system’s full launch is planned on January 1st, says Oleh Slobodian, assistant for the Head of Ukrainian State border service. “Currently all “157 border crossing points have been equipped with the biometric control systems. This presumes verification of fingerprints, as well as acces to databases of State Security Service of Ukraine and INTERPOL in case a respective check is needed. The system for biometric control of foreigners will be fully launched on January 1st . It concerns foreigners from 71 countries, which can possibly be dangerous for Ukrainians. The system itself consists in those countries’ nationals presenting their biometric data, namely their 5 fingerprints of their right hand, when crossing the Ukrainian border,” Oleh Slobodian told Ukrainian Radio.
The measure is being introduced particularly to track the border between Ukraine and Russia, according to the interior minister's adviser, Zorian Shkiriak. He said mobile biometric control points were operating in the border points where illegal crossing by trespassers and smugglers is most likely for now. “From midnight on January 1, 2018, all citizens of Russia, who wish to cross the state border of Ukraine, will have their fingerprints and biometric data collected. All checkpoints on the border with the state-aggressor are already equipped with modern biometric data reading systems and connected to the Interpol and Europol databases,” –said Zorian Shkiriak on his Facebook page.
As we reported previously, the respective decree was signed by Ukrainian President on September 1, 2017, enacting the decision of the National Security and Defense Council, to introduce a system for reading the biometric data of foreigners on the border.