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The Pressing Questions Regarding Ukraine-Russia Prisoner Exchange
9 September, 2019
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Bogdan Nebylitsa, senior lieutenant and commander of the Nikopol boat that was captured by the Russian FSB, arrives in Kyiv on September 7. Photo: Andriy Novikov / Hromadske

The recent prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia meant that 35 Ukrainian citizens – including well-known names like Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko – finally returned home. However, questions remain as to whom and why Ukraine gave to Russia in return and under what conditions the negotiations between the two countries took place. 

Hromadske spoke with experts to discuss the possible background of the exchange – many details of which, to this day, remain unknown. 

The head of the board at the Center for Civil Liberties, Olexandra Matviychuk, said that other than the fact that the exchange was in the 35-for-35 format, not many things are known about it. 

READ MORE: The Great Exchange: Which Ukrainian Political Prisoners Returned Home?

"We have no idea if there is some hidden part of the negotiations and how this exchange is framed in the broader context of the Minsk Agreement realization," Matviychuk said.

The Editor-in-Chief of Hromadske, Angelina Kariakina, pointed out the lack of clarity pertaining to the selection process for the Ukrainians that were chosen to go home.

“We don’t know why some Ukrainians were on the list and the rest of the people [that are in Russia’s prisons] weren’t. Ukrainian ombudsperson Liudmyla Denisova said that over 110 Ukrainians still remain in Russian and Crimean prisons. 86 is the most heard number and we are wondering who the rest are out of the 110,” Kariakina said.

Matviychuk added that the real numbers are unknown and one should not forget that several hundred more are imprisoned in Russia-occupied Donbas, some of whom have already been waiting to be released for four or five years.

READ MORE: The Great Exchange: Whom Did Ukraine Send to Russia?

Kariakina also argued it is “unbelievably illogical and makes no sense in terms of law to discuss the release of these 35 people in the framework of bilateral talks between Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Vladimir Putin and the rest in the Minsk process”. 

The other problem with the exchange is there was no official list of the detainees given to Russia, neither from Kyiv nor from Moscow. Instead, the news is based on the reports by sources. 

"There were no official statement or document by the Security Service of Ukraine or by the Office of the President saying these are the reasons and these are the people the Russians are asking for. Even with [Volodymyr] Tsemakh, the only witness [available] in the case of MH17, it wasn’t clear until the last moment, whether he would be exchanged, whether he would fly to Russia or go back to the self-proclaimed DPR. The process was not public," Kariakina said. 

Editor-in-Chief of Hromadske, Angelina Kariakina (R), and the head of the board at the Center for Civil Liberties, Olexandra Matviychuk (L), discuss the September 7 prisoner exchange in Kyiv, Ukraine on September 8. Photo: Hromadske

According to various news reports, most of the detainees Ukraine handed to Russia are actually Ukrainian citizens.

“The whole process is not in line with law. This exchange was not regulated by any laws or international documents. Don’t ask me why the court [concerning Tsemakh] decided to follow the decision of the president, nor the rule of law and why Ukraine gave Ukrainian citizens, not [only] Russian, to Russia,” Olexandra Matviychuk stressed.

Adding, however, that maybe it could not have been in line with the law, as "everything Russia has done [in the past] contradicts the law."

As Hromadske’s Kariakina pointed out, “we don’t understand what the legal grounds are and what the legal aftermath of each exchange later on would be”.

READ MORE: Tears of Joy: How Ukraine Greeted Political Prisoners on Return From Russia

/Interview by Andriy Kulykov

/Text by Vladyslav Kudryk