Ukraine’s Human Rights Ombudsman has revealed new details into why several prisoners of war declined to return to territory controlled by Russia-led separatists during Ukraine’s December 27 prisoner exchange.
On paper, government authorities were expected to exchange 306 prisoners for 74 Ukrainians held captive in the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) and “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LPR). However, on the day of the exchange, only 233 of the prisoners returned to occupied territory. While some had already served their sentences on Ukrainian-controlled territory and been released, others refused to return.
Among them was Volodymyr Sleptsov, the former mayor of the Donetsk region town of Toretsk, who was charged with participating in a terrorist group and infringement on Ukraine’s territorial integrity for his involvement in organizing an illegal referendum on “DPR” independence.
Earlier, Hromadske reported that Sleptsov hid in a bus of journalists while the prisoner swap was taking place to avoid returning to the ‘DPR’. Today, however, Ombudsman Valeriya Lutkovska told the 112.ua television channel that she asked for the ex-mayor to be escorted to the bus.
Lutkovska said she knew Sleptsov personally and was aware of the state of his health, which she believes would have deteriorated had he been forced to endure hours of formalities. “That’s why I asked for him to be taken first, together with the journalists,” she said.
Furthermore, Lutkovska said that, a week prior to the exchange, around twenty people were unsure whether they would return to the occupied territories. She suggested that seven individuals who declined to return to “DPR” and “LPR” territory at the last minute might have been influenced by information they received right before the transfer. “A person came, received a court decision or [his or her] amnesty order, and decided to stay,” she said.
Meanwhile, 73 Ukrainians returned to government-controlled territory instead of the 74 who were expected.
One woman, who had been freed from captivity, decided to remain on occupied territory because her family lived in the separatist-held city of Donetsk and she had no support on government-controlled territory.
Lutkovska said that the woman’s choice to remain on occupied territory should not be regarded as an act of treason. “This woman is free, she obviously continues to be a Ukrainian citizen. Nobody holds anything against her in any way,” she said.
“She can come [to Ukraine] at any moment to receive her financial compensation, which the Minister of Social Policy previously talked about and which all the freed prisoners will receive, as well as psychological help.”
/By Natalie Vikhrov and Maria Romanenko