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Ukraine: Prisoner Exchange Welcome, but Reveals Unfulfilled Demands for Justice
In response to an exchange of prisoners between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatist authorities in parts of eastern Ukraine on December 29, Freedom House issued the following statement:
“The exchange of prisoners between the Ukrainian government and the de facto authorities in parts of Donbas is a welcome step forward in building peace in Ukraine,” said Marc Behrendt, director of Freedom House’s Europe and Eurasia programs. “Yet, we share concerns that the Ukrainian authorities’ exchange of police officers being tried for serious crimes having nothing to do with the conflict undermines the rule of law by effectively ending judicial processes without a clear legal rationale. Nearly six years after the 2014 revolution, the Ukrainian justice system has done shockingly little to hold accountable those responsible for serious crimes and human rights abuses that occurred during the Euromaidan protests. Ukrainian leaders should seize this moment to take decisive steps to fully prosecute those accused of killing protesters on Maidan Square. With more prisoner exchanges anticipated, the Ukrainian authorities should also establish a legal framework for the exchanges to ensure that they do not undermine the rule of law, and that those responsible for abuses do not escape accountability.”
On December 29, Ukraine and Russian-backed forces in Donbas swapped almost 200 prisoners, both civilians and combatants, some of whom had been detained since 2014. Among those held by Russian-backed rebels and returned to Ukraine were journalists and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) contributors Stanislav Aseyev and Oleg Galaziuk, as well as 70-year-old Anastasiia Mukhina, who was arrested in early 2018 for attaching a pro-Ukrainian sticker to a building. In exchange for 69 civilians and 12 service members, Ukraine released dozens of individuals. Among them were five Ukrainian officers with the special Berkut police unit accused of killing more than 20 protesters during the Euromaidan protests in February 2014, and three men convicted of organizing a terrorist attack in Kharkiv in 2015 that resulted in the deaths of four people. Prosecutors convinced courts to release the men from custody as their trials continued, to allow them to be exchanged.
Many Ukrainians voiced anger and disappointment over the decision to exchange the men accused of killings, saying it effectively ensured they would not be brought to justice, and undermined the independence of the courts. Ukrainians also criticized their release as part of the prisoner exchange because their alleged crimes were unrelated to the conflict.
Valeria Lutkovska, Ukraine’s representative in the humanitarian subgroup of the Trilateral Contact Group for the Donbas settlement, claims that there are still hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners of war held by Russian-backed forces in eastern Donbas, as well as at least 89 Ukrainian political prisoners held in Russia and Crimea.
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.