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Surviving imprisonment: does Ukraine need a law for former prisoners from the Donbas conflict?

Ukrainian society has had to face many challenges since 2014. One of them is reintegrating people who have experienced imprisonment and violence. RU

Meeting prisoners at the airport Borispol, Kyiv, December 27, 2017. Photo: Elena Zhemchugova / Facebook.Just before New Year, a much-awaited event happened: prisoners held by Ukraine and the so-called Luhansk and Donetsk “People’s Republics” were exchanged. Shortly after, Ukrainian media started to discuss a possible second round of exchanges, although there is yet no word about concrete dates or who might be freed. Meanwhile, volunteers and NGOs have started drafting legislation that could define the rights of people taken hostage and their role in the Minsk Agreements.

“You can’t live in the DNR now and still love Ukraine”

Volodymyr Fomichov spent over two years in the hands of “Donetsk People’s Republic” law enforcement. In August 2016, Fomichov was abducted, in front of his parents, from his home in the city of Makiivka near Donetsk, where he was accused of extremist activity and treason. In December 2017, he was released as part of the prisoner exchange.

Before war broke out in Ukraine, Vladimir was a member of the Regional Initiatives Foundation (FRI), a student organisation aimed at developing leadership abilities in young people and campaigning for reforms in education, student support and rights. During Euromaidan, Fomichov supported a similar initiative in Donetsk, but moved to Kyiv as soon as the armed conflict broke out. He started working with Centre UA, which monitors the effectiveness of members of Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, and drafts reformist legislation.

Vladimir Fomichev beside the statue of Lenin in Donetsk. A week later, he was arrested. Photo: Vladimir Fomichev / Facebook.In the summer of 2016, Fomichov came to visit his parents in Donetsk. He announced his arrival on his Facebook page, posting a selfie standing beside the statue of Lenin with the caption: “Lenin in Donetsk. Lenin who has been torn down”. A week later, he was arrested. His parents said that when they entered his room he was already handcuffed and there were signs that he had been beaten. In 2015, it seems, an FRI colleague of Volodymyr’s in Donetsk had given information about him to the DNR authorities. Volodymyr himself says that he has proof, but doesn’t know the possible motives and reasons they might have had. They had met for the last time, Fomichov says, before the war and he didn’t know what happened to Roman later. The two didn’t meet during his investigation.

I caught up with Volodymyr a few days after he left Kyiv’s Feofaniya rehabilitation centre in the south of the city. He tells me that during his time at the centre, he tried to engage with the media and NGOs as little as possible. But in that short time, he managed to take part in a Verkhovna Rada meeting with foreign diplomats where he spoke about conditions in the DNR prison system.

Fomichov tells me that he saw a lot during his time under arrest and only pleaded guilty at his trial because he knew that the verdict was inevitable. He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison plus an extra year suspended sentence without the right to leave the DNR. Fomichov spent most of his sentence in solitary confinement, apart from time in a prison colony in Horlivka.

“I read a lot, including literature in Ukrainian that I found in the prison library,” he tells me. “I also listened to the radio, mostly Ukrainian stations – we couldn’t pick up either Russian or DNR stuff. There were the usual prison regulations and routine.I wasn’t considered an important political prisoner and didn’t have any ‘special’ conditions.”

On some days at the Horlivka colony, Fomichev was given administrative duties and could see what was happening in the town. There was no shooting or bombardment to be heard, but the town was sinking into an ever deeper state of depression, with no jobs outside the “state sector”.

There was no shooting or bombardment to be heard, but the town was sinking into an ever deeper state of depression

“You blame people for going to work in a prison,” says Fomichev. “There’s no work around, everything’s at a complete standstill. I met all kinds of people there, both inmates and staff. Some would even break the rules and let me use their mobile to phone my parents and friends in Kyiv.”

According to Fomichov, the DNR is attempting to run a system with proper rules, to create a bureaucratic apparatus – all the stuff you have in a state system. They even theoretically have an Ombudsperson. However, Darya Morozova, who is supposedly fulfilling this role in the DNR, never once replied to Fomichev’s parents’ letters or visited him in prison.

But perhaps the worst thing Volodymyr has had to deal with wasn’t even the conditions in DNR prisons, but the absence of any rehabilitation system in Ukraine. Returning from his imprisonment, he was given a “separatist certificate” (as the employees at the passport office people called it) – a document stating that he was a displaced person. He refused, however, to accept any financial compensation from the state, arguing that 400 hryvnya (£11) a month would not solve his problems and he didn’t, in any case, want to be dependent on the state. At that point, there were no other measures in place to help reintegrate former prisoners.

“After a few weeks of rehabilitation in the Feofania Centre, you are left on your own,” Fomichev tells me. “You need to sort out a place to live and a job. I have refused any counselling so far, although you immediately come up against all kinds of challenges after leaving prison.”

Hostages of war

Despite two official exchanges of prisoners between Ukraine and the “People’s Republics”, it is practically impossible to calculate how many people have been freed and how many are still languishing in L/DNR prisons and cellars. As Anna Mokrousova, a psychologist with the Blakytnyi ptakh (Blue Bird) organisation tells me, people generally return home after they have served their sentence, but there are some who disappear without trace. Or they could be imprisoned in one of the unrecognised republics. An entire organisation may also be imprisoned.

The case of the Donetsk Isolation Art Foundation, a platform for contemporary art and cultural initiatives, is one example of this. In the spring of 2014, the foundation was forced to leave the former factory building it occupied and move to Kyiv – the building’s basements and exhibition spaces are now being used to hold hostages. Dmytro Potekhin, a political analyst and trainer in passive resistance, is one of the people who were held in Isolation’s old premises. The “evidence” beaten out of him became part of a major criminal case against the Isolation centre, which was fabricated by the DNR. The art foundation is now planning to take all the related documents to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and demand damages.

Mokrousova tells me that recently a lot of people held in the former factory have recently contacted her organisation for help. At present, former prisoners and hostages can receive written confirmation that they have been imprisoned. To receive this, they need to contact the “Prisoner Liberation Centre” or bring their evidence to the prosecutor’s office. In that case, according to volunteers and civil activists, the evidence must be in the form of an official record. Aggrieved parties can also appeal to the ECHR for compensation for emotional distress.

A group of volunteers and civil activists have started drafting legislation that would define the rights of hostages

The initiative for specific legislation dealing with former prisoners has been taken by a group of volunteers and civic activists, including people from the human rights group Sich, Forpost, which helps veterans adapt to civilian life, and Blakytnyi Ptakh. But this legislation is also the idea of former prisoners themselves, such as Anatoly Polyakov, a Russian citizen who volunteered during and after Maidan, and who spent nine months as a prisoner. In November 2017, Polyakov and other ex-hostages set up a new organisation, the Ukrainian Prisoners’ Association, to defend the interests of this unprotected group.

Polyakov had already decided on the main aims of the organisation: to have a representative of prisoners’ families included in the Minsk contact group; to create a parliamentary commission on how best to rehabilitate prisoners; to restart the exchange process and to ensure that all hostages were recognised as such.

After the return: Vladimir Fomichev with journalists Lesia Ganzha and Aksinya Kurina. Photo: Aksinya Kurina.Later in November 2017, Ihor Mamontov, an assistant to parliamentarian Yuri Shukhevych (a nationalist politician, himself an ex-political prisoner in the Soviet Union) announced on the independent Hromadske Radio that the initiative would be known as the “Law on people unlawfully deprived of their freedom” and would begin by defining the rights of civilians imprisoned during a conflict. The new law would not give them prisoner of war status: as Mamontov pointed out, Ukraine is a signatory to the Hague and Geneva conventions that govern that status. He also commented on the structure of the new law, which would have two main parts. The first would concern hostage status per se, which would apply to citizens unlawfully deprived of their freedom or unlawfully held in places of detention or places functioning as such, as well as unlawfully convicted citizens given prison sentences in the Russian Federation. The status of an unlawfully convicted person could be determined through the courts: Ukrainian courts would set up a procedure for establishing this legal status.

“The agreement with the Ministry of Social Policy and other relevant ministries that will ensure compliance with the law is now being concluded,” said Mamontov.

The second part of the law, he continued, would define the social provision for people affected by the issue: treatment and rehabilitation; the right to free legal services; the provision of immediate material needs (temporary social housing for the period of Kyiv’s anti-terrorist operation; financial compensation for the period of detention or detention as a result of unlawful conviction by a foreign state; the right to postpone loan repayments).

Polyakov said earlier that there was a good team drafting it, and the volunteers had been assured of support from parliamentarians. The volunteers are sure they will have the support of the Verkhovna Rada: the hostage law, they believe, can, after all, provide a basis for the proper reintegration not just of people affected by it, but of the region as a whole.

The hostage law can provide a basis for the reintegration not just of people affected by it, but of the region as a whole

Ukraine’s Ombudsperson Valeriya Lutkovska also believes that the legal definition of hostage status is a good idea: “I very much like the idea of introducing such a status and believe that parliament will soon vote for a bill to introduce it, so that these people will be given a status, even if only retrospectively, that will guarantee them a number of social benefits, support for getting into work and certain advantages in other areas.”

Valentin Krasnoperov, a political analyst with Silny Hromady (“Strong Communities”) and Centre UA disagrees. He sees no need for a new law. “I strongly support any public attempts to help prisoners. It’s right that NGOs should get involved in solving our country’s problems. But, unfortunately, when Ukrainians take a useful initiative, they always see it as culminating in a law. My idea is simple: we can’t solve all our problems through the state and produce more people entitled to social benefits. If someone becomes disabled, they should receive help as a disabled person.”

March 2, 2018 at the checkpoint “Hoptovka” in the Kharkov region, the exchange of four border guards. Photo: Irina Gerashchenko / Facebook. Krasnoperov believes that there is no point in discussing the issue internally: “There’s also the question of what issues can be aired in the international arena: how can Ukraine give rights to hostages if we can’t provide rights for Ukrainian citizens in the occupied territories? How can we help Ukrainian citizens forcibly detained in the Russian Federation?”

Despite the earlier statements by activists that the new law could be published in late 2017-early 2018, it remains under development.

The need for security

Blue Bird is one of the few NGOs to provide support and help for both prisoners and their families. Its leader, psychologist Anna Mokrousova, was herself imprisoned in Luhansk in 2014. After her release, she moved to Kyiv and some time afterwards set up her NGO.

She tells me that the first thing that she tries to ensure for someone leaving prison is to meet their need for security: remove them from the conflict zone, organise their daily life (provide them with accommodation and food and, where necessary, other essentials). Their desire for security, Mokrousova says, plays an important role in their reintegration: people return from prison changed and have to re-enter a different, changed world.

People return from prison changed and have to re-enter a different, changed world

Another side of Blue Bird’s work is legal help and advice if someone has lost their ID papers or needs to file a claim with a court. Anna tells me that this is one of the most important things they do: sooner or later, someone who has been wrongfully imprisoned needs to receive satisfaction and the culprit needs to be punished. Mokrousova’s own case has gone through several stages and at present is being examined by an international court.

Blue Bird also provides medical and emotional help on request – Anna says that there is a constant need for such help. For example, although the prisoner exchange took place in December, some people only made their way to Kyiv later. There were several possible factors at play here: a lack of personal papers or a delay in the Donetsk or Luhansk region or in areas under Ukrainian control. All this can affect the process: the state, as a bureaucratic system, can’t react instantaneously, while Blue Bird can provide more rapid help.

Mokrousova tells me that any institutional help, from either the state or an international organisation such as the Red Cross, is designed for a short period immediately after release. It can, however, happen that people need both medical and psychological help some time later. As well as health issues arising two or three years after release, there can be problems with housing, say, or work. At present, Blue Bird can help people search for vacancies, but its volunteers can’t have any influence on potential employers. As Mokrousova says, it’s important for the person to realise they need to take responsibility for their lives and try to retrain, improve their qualifications and so on.

The need to feel secure that Mokrousova talks about is crucial not just for ex-prisoners but for people who are otherwise affected by the war – immigrants, soldiers and their families; witnesses and to war and just ordinary Ukrainians. This security, she tells me, is made up of various factors: social stability, a reasonable economic situation, a functioning legal system, working courts, an absence of political scandals and so on. A law about hostages is unlikely to provide this security if the existing laws and legal system aren’t working. Nor will such a law define Ukraine’s attitude to other important issues: Donbas, for example, or the reintegration of displaced people or people in areas not under Ukrainian control who have also ended up imprisoned and hostages of military action.

If recent prisoners and hostages are not to feel like a burden on the state, it seems that reintegration and rehabilitation require more wide-ranging solutions.


About the author

Kateryna Iakovlenko is a journalist and researcher from Rovenky, Luhansk. She researches Ukrainian art of the 1980s-1990s, and is postgraduate student at the New Media Department, Lviv National University. 


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