The day has come and 11 Ukrainian political prisoners returned home after years spent in Russian prisons. Hromadske takes a look at who they are and the history of their arrests and trials.
To see a minute-by-minute account of the September 7 prisoner exchange, follow this link.
Oleksandr Kolchenko is an activist of the Crimean Euromaidan. Prior to that, he participated in numerous events – in support of students, employees of Krymtrolleybus. He took part in the environmental movement. He studied at the University of Tavria at the Faculty of Geography.
Kolchenko was detained by Russian special services in May 2014 in annexed Crimea. It was in the same case as Oleg Sentsov, whom the Russian court had condemned for "creating a terrorist group." Kolchenko was accused of involvement in it.
Oleksandr Kolchenko waves at Hromadske's camera after landing in Ukraine on September 7 following over five years spent in Russian prisons and detention centers. Photo: Hromadske
On August 25, 2015, the North Caucasian Military District Court of the Russian Federation in Rostov-on-Don sentenced Kolchenko to 10 years in prison, although prosecutors asked for 12.
He served his sentence in the penal colony No. 6 in Kopeysk, Russia (Chelyabinsk Region).
Oleg Sentsov is a Ukrainian film director from Simferopol, author of the films "Gamer" and "Rhinoceros" (unfinished). He was an active participant of Ukraine's 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests and the pro-Ukrainian demonstrations during the annexation of Crimea.
Sentsov was detained by officers of the Russian FSB in Crimea on May 10, 2014. During interrogations, they beat, strangled, and threatened to take Sentsov to a forest and bury him. They demanded he give evidence against the leaders of the Euromaidan. Subsequently, Sentsov was transferred to the Lefortovo detention center in Moscow, Russia.
The trial of the Ukrainian took place in the North Caucasus Military District Court in Rostov-on-Don. Sentsov was accused of preparing terrorist attacks (attempts to blow up the Lenin monument and the Eternal Flame Memorial in Simferopol and the arson of the offices of pro-Russian organizations). He was sentenced to 20 years in a maximum security colony.
Oleg Sentsov briefly speaks to Ukrainian media on September 7 after his return to Ukraine following over five years spent in Russian prisons and detention centers. Photo: Hromadske
From November 13, 2017, Oleg Sentsov was held in the White Bear colony in the city of Labytnangi (Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug) in Siberia.
Last year, Oleg Sentsov went on a hunger strike demanding the release of all political prisoners in the Kremlin. He held out for 145 days. Sentsov announced the end of the hunger strike on October 6 because of the threat of forced feeding. On September 10, Sentsov’s cousin announced that the political prisoner had written a testament concerning his creative works in the event of his death.
At the time of Sentsov’s imprisonment, well-known artists – in particular film directors Pedro Almodóvar, Krzysztof Zanussi, Andrzej Wajda, and Andrey Zvyagintsev – expressed their support of Sentsov.
The 19-year-old Pavlo Gryb was detained in August 2017 in the Belarusian city of Gomel. According to his father, Ukrainian officer Ihor Gryb, Pavlo was lured to the territory of a neighboring state by Russian security services.
In Gomel, Pavlo was supposed to meet a girl he met on social networks. Later, Russian Tatiana Yershova confessed that she had invited the Ukrainian to Belarus because she was forced by the FSB.
Pavlo Gryb during a court hearing. Photo: Oleksandr Kokhan / Hromadske
Pavlo has a serious congenital illness – portal hypertension. He has to constantly take supportive drugs. During his detention in the Krasnodar remand prison, his health repeatedly deteriorated, and access to medication and medical services were often blocked. During his trial, Pavlo was in Rostov's pre-trial detention center and testified in court via a video call.
On March 22, 2019 in Rostov-on-Don, Pavlo Gryb was sentenced to six years in prison for "inciting" Russian citizen Tatiana Yershova to commit a "terrorist attack". In July, the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation found the sentence legal.
After the announcement of the sentence, Gryb told Hromadske that he was starting a hunger strike, but he soon stopped it.
The father of the political prisoner Pavlo Gryb called the verdict fatal to his son, and the Ukrainian Ombudsperson said that Pavlo needed immediate heart surgery. Gryb was never transferred to a colony due to his medical condition.
Stanislav Klykh, a history teacher at the Kyiv Transport Academy, was detained by Russian security officers on August 8, 2014 at one of the hotels in the Russian city of Orel. He was there to meet his girlfriend. He was only allowed to call his mother to report the arrest.
Stanislav Klykh during a court hearing. Photo: Anton Naumlyuk / RFE/RL
Nobody heard anything about Klykh for the next 10 months until his lawyer Maryna Dubrovina managed to see him in the solitary confinement cell of Pyatigorsk. He then wrote a letter to the European Court of Human Rights outlining the torture he was subjected to in order to force confessions out of him.
On May 26, 2016, a Chechnya court sentenced Klykh to 20 years in prison. He and Mykola Karpiuk were accused of killing Russian troops in Grozny in 1994-95 during the Russo-Chechen war. At the same time, prosecutors did not provide any evidence that Klykh and Karpiuk were in Chechnya at the time.
In July 2018, Klykh was transferred to the Magnitogorsk Psychiatric Hospital. Russia claimed that the political prisoners had been "transferred at will". The political prisoner then told his mother he had been doped with psychotropic drugs there. Klykh was serving his sentence in the Chelyabinsk Region.
On March 17, 2014, Mykola Karpiuk, the deputy head of the Right Sector for ideological work, was detained on the Russian side of the border between the Bryansk and Chernihiv regions by border guards of the Russian Federation.
A few days earlier, at the country house near Kyiv, the Right Sector leader was deciding how to deal with the possible annexation of Crimea. At this meeting, the head of the Kyiv-based RS organization, Viacheslav Fursa, offered to go and negotiate with the Russians at the highest level – he called names of advisers to President Vladimir Putin, whose contacts he allegedly had. Supposedly such a meeting would have given an opportunity to resolve the issue with Crimea in favor of Ukraine.
Mykola Karpiuk at a court hearing. Photo: Anton Naumlyuk / RFE/RL
However, according to the participants themselves, everyone was against such a trip. So Karpiuk went against the warnings. According to Dmytro Yarosh, head of the Right Sector at the time, it was Karpiuk's personal decision. On March 17, Viacheslav Fursa and his driver were detained together with Karpiuk. However, the first two returned 15 days later.
In May 2016, a Chechnya court sentenced Karpiuk to 22.5 years in prison. He was serving his sentence in Russia's Vladimir Central Prison.
On August 10, 2016, Russia’s FSB declared the elimination of the"intelligence network of the General Directorate of Intelligence of Ukraine" in the annexed Crimea and the detention of the "organizer of terrorist attacks" in the territory of the peninsula, the alleged "organizer" being a former Donbas war participant and volunteer Yevhen Panov.
Political prisoner’s brother Ihor Kotelanets believes that Panov was abducted and taken to Crimea because "there is no other way that he could have ended up there." Panov and Andriy Zakhtey were held in the Lefortovo pre-trial detention center in Moscow.
Yevhen Panov at a court hearing. Photo: Anton Naumlyuk / RFE/RL
Russia's Federal Security Service accused Panov of preparing a "sabotage" on the occupied peninsula, as well as of storing and smuggling weapons. He declined to agree to the investigation. On July 13, 2018, the Crimean “court” sentenced Panov to 8 years in a maximum security prison.
In January 2019, Panov was taken to Omsk after a four-month transportation.
At the end of 2013, Crimean farmer Volodymyr Balukh hung a Ukrainian flag on his house in the village of Serebryanka. The flag was removed several times, but Balukh hung it up again.
Balukh at a court hearing. Photo: Anton Naumlyuk / RFE/RL
After the annexation of Crimea, the persecution began. In August 2017, a local court sentenced Balukh to 3.5 years in prison. He was charged with "ammunition storage". At the beginning of October 2017, the “court” quashed the sentence and ordered a new trial. According to its results, in January 2018 Balukh was sentenced to 3 years, 7 months of penal settlement and a fine of 10,000 rubles (around $150).
In the summer of 2018, the Russia-controlled Rozdolne District Court of Crimea found Balukh guilty of allegedly beating a detention center chief, and therefore sentenced him to five years in prison and a fine of 10,000 rubles.
While in prison, Balukh fasted for 206 days, consuming only a few tablespoons of oatmeal, breadcrumbs, water and tea with honey. However, he stopped the hunger strike for the duration of the transportation.
Roman Sushchenko worked as a France correspondent for the Ukrinform news site. He arrived in Russia in September 2016 to visit his relatives. He was detained there and charged with espionage in October. During the trial, Sushchenko was held in the Lefortovo prison.
On June 4, 2018, a court in Moscow convicted Sushchenko to 12 years in a maximum security prison. In his last statement at court, Sushchenko pleaded not guilty.
Sushchenko was transferred to the colony #11 in the Kirov region of Russia. There he was held in a so-called "safe place" to avoid possible conflicts and incidents with other prisoners.
In August 2019, Sushchenko signed documents agreeing to serve his sentence in Ukraine.
During his imprisonment, Sushchenko painted pictures. In February 2019, an exhibition of the journalist's work from Lefortovo in 2016-2018 took place in Paris.
Oleksiy Syzonovych, a Ukrainian pensioner, was abducted in Luhansk and taken to Rostov in August 2016.
On July 31, 2017, the North Caucasian District Military Court sentenced Syzonovych to 12 years in prison and fined 250,000 rubles (3,800$) for allegedly preparing terrorist attacks in the Rostov region.
During the trial, Syzonovych was kept in a pre-trial detention center in Rostov-on-Don, where he was severely beaten – this was reported by Diana Ivanova, the Consul of Ukraine in Novosibirsk, Russia. She was first allowed to visit Syzonovych a year and a half after his detention.
Oleksiy Syzonovych during a court hearing. Photo: Vladyslav Ryazantsev
Syzonovych, who is now 63, was held in a prison in the Irkutsk region. During his captivity, a tumor on his neck began to tighten. The prison doctor ordered to see a specialist, whom Syzonovych had been waiting for more than a month. According to the consul, Syzonovych most likely requires surgery.
The Russian security forces detained Crimean Tatar Edem Bekirov at the administrative border near Crimea in December 2018 – he was accused of allegedly transporting 10 kg of TNT and 190 rounds of live ammunition.
Shortly before his arrest, Bekirov – who lives with diabetes – underwent heart surgery and leg amputation. Because of his serious health condition, Bekirov constantly needs medicine. His lawyer repeatedly stated that Bekirov was not being given medical treatment in jail. The European Court of Human Rights reacted to Bekirov’s case and ordered the Russian Federation to conduct an independent medical examination of the political prisoner.
Edem Bekirov during a court hearing. Photo: Anton Naumlyuk / RFE/RL
Bekirov was held in a pre-trial detention center on the territory of the annexed Crimea for more than 8.5 months. In summer 2019, Russia said that it had completed the investigation of his case, after which the case was to be transferred to court. But on August 27, the Central District Court of Simferopol changed his preventive measure to an obligation to appear in court.
A native of Krasnodon in Ukraine's Luhansk region, Artur Panov was detained in December 2015 after allegedly crossing the Russian-Ukrainian border under the guise of a refugee. According to Russia's prosecutors, Panov was going to blow up the Rostov Theater named after Maxim Gorky. While on Russian territory, he allegedly even managed to assemble an explosive device. Panov himself claimed that it was an explosive package that would not harm anyone.
Artur Panov during a court hearing. Photo: RFE/RL
In the Rostov pre-trial detention center, where he was held, Panov's health started deteriorating. He claimed that someone tried to poison him. According to him, he was not helped when he complained of a sore spine and was not given crutches, which he requested. Panov went on a hunger strike demanding to be extradited to Ukraine.
The list of the 24 Ukrainian sailors captured in a November 25 Russian attack near Kerch Strait is as follows:
Bohdan Nebylytsia, senior lieutenant
Andriy Oprysko, senior sailor
Vyacheslav Zinchenko, senior sailor
Serhiy Tsybizov, sailor
Serhiy Popov, captain lieutenant
Vladyslav Kostyshyn, senior lieutenant
Andriy Drach, SBU representative
Roman Mokriak, captain lieutenant
Yuri Bezyazychny, senior sailor
Andriy Artemenko, senior sailor
Andriy Eider, sailor
Bohdan Holovash, senior sailor
Denys Hrytsenko, second-rank captain
Vasyl Soroka, SBU representative
Oleh Melnychuk, senior lieutenant
Mykhailo Vlasyuk, senior sailor
Viktor Bespalchenko, senior sailor
Volodymyr Tereshchenko, senior sailor
Yevhen Semydotskyi, sailor
Volodymyr Lisovyi, third-rank captain
Andriy Shevchenko, michman
Volodymyr Varymez, senior sailor
Serhiy Chulyba, second sergeant
Yuriy Budzylo, michman
All the 24 men said they considered themselves prisoners of war.