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UPDATED: Is This MH17 Suspect the Reason Ukraine-Russia Prisoner Swap Stalled?
1 September, 2019
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MH17 case suspect Volodymyr Tsemakh is the former anti-aircraft defense commander in the occupied part of the Donetsk region. Bellingcat

Update: After publishing this article Hromadske learned from prosecutor Oleh Peresada that the court had prolonged the detention of Volodymyr Tsemakh who is being held in remand prison. According to Peresada, the meeting to continue the preventive measure was held on August 24. 

On September 2, theBabel reported that the Netherlands urged Ukraine not to extradite Tsemakh. The outlet published a copy of a letter sent by the Chief Prosecutor of the Netherlands Fred Westerbeke to Prosecutor General's Office of Ukraine.

Peresada told Hromadske that he knows nothing about the Netherlands's position at the moment, and his client asked him "not to comment to the press". Hromadske made an inquiry to the Embassy of the Netherlands.

Ever since the transfer of five Ukrainian political prisoners to the Lefortovo remand prison in Moscow, there have been rumors that the long-awaited exchange of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia would take place in a matter of days. 

Even the newly fledged Prosecutor General of Ukraine Rouslan Riaboshapka was caught spreading lies after mindlessly sharing a post that claimed that the exchange had already taken place in the early hours of the penultimate day of summer. This premature euphoria led to already agitated relatives of political prisoners traveling hundreds of kilometers and staying up all night in vain. Yet more than a week passes and Ukrainians remain in Moscow. Could all this be because of one man alone?

READ MORE: Zelenskyy's Office Quiet on the Release of 24 Ukrainian Sailors

Who is Volodymyr Tsemakh?

The man in question is called Volodymyr Tsemakh. Ukrainian journalist Yuriy Butusov reckons it is because of him the exchange has not yet happened. 

Tsemakh is the former anti-aircraft defense commander in the occupied part of the Donetsk region. His daughter claims he only took the position in October 2014, but at the time MH17 was downed near Snizhne in the occupied Donbas, he was the only man who was qualified to fire the Buk missile system, even if he was not in fact the commander at the time.   

READ MORE: 5 Years Since MH17 Downing: Following the Footsteps of Russia’s Involvement  

According to the BBC’s Russian service, Tsemakh was arrested in his flat in Snizhne on June 27, 2019. Ukrainian intelligence transferred him to the government-controlled area -- in what many regard as one of their most successful operations -- where Kyiv’s Shevchenkivskyi District Court sentenced him to a two-month arrest on June 29 for “creating a terrorist group or terrorist organization”.

Tsemakh was not on the original list of prisoners for exchange, but Butusov believes Russian President Vladimir Putin added him at the last minute.

Dilemma for Ukraine

Journalist Vitaliy Portnikov in his article for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty argues that this may well be a trap for Ukraine on the part of the Russian president. If so, Putin played this card at a perfect time: after Volodymyr Zelenskyy made the release of prisoners his number one priority, and after Emmanuel Macron promised to help put an end to the Donbas war. Now that Putin himself spoke of readiness to compromise to improve relations with the West and the question of the big exchange involving dozens of illegally detained Ukrainians seems cut and dried, it might seem adding one man to the list is not too big a concession for Ukraine. But Tsemakh is wanted by the Netherlands as someone who was one of the main witnesses of the events that took place on July 17, 2014. If he does speak and tells the truth about what really happened on that tragic day, the international court could get sufficient evidence to pronounce Russia’s top officials, including perhaps even Putin, war criminals, Portnikov reasons.  

At the same time, the Presidential Office nor experts close to the President have neither confirmed nor refuted the above situation.

READ MORE: JIT Indicts 4 for MH17 Downing, Bellingcat Names More Possible Suspects 

Tsemakh might seem just another name, but passing him over to Russia could lead to grave repercussions for Ukraine, in particular on the part of the Netherlands who are eagerly awaiting the March 2020 court hearing in the Hague and understandably want to gather as much information on the matter as possible because without solid evidence Russia will continue to feel in its element denying all accusations of its direct involvement in the downing.