When the Euromaidan protests began in Kyiv in 2013, Volodymyr Balukh raised the Ukrainian flag above his Crimean home. After Euromaidan, he put up a plaque that read “Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred Street” to commemorate those who died during the revolution.
But after the Russian annexation of Crimea, Balukh found himself a target for Russia’s authorities, who arrested him in December 2016 on what human rights activists say were fabricated charges created to silence the pro-Ukrainian activist.
Photo credit: HROMADSKE
In August, a Crimean court sentenced him to three years and seven months in jail. Later, that sentence was overturned and last week Balukh was placed under house arrest.
Hromadske was present when Balukh was released from detention and spoke to Balukh’s mother, Natalya, just days before his release.
Balukh has been is detention since last December. Targeted by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), he has seen his home searched routinely since 2015. At first, he was fined and ordered to complete 320 hours of community service. Then, in late 2016, the Russian authorities announced that they found 90 bullets as well as explosives in his attic, which led to his arrest.
The case has been widely criticised by human rights groups, who believe the ammunition was planted in Balukh’s home. In a post on the website of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group, Halyna Coynash states that, not only was there no evidence of Balukh or any of his family touching the ammunition, but the officer who supposedly discovered the ammo was off duty that day.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of falsification, in August, a Crimean court sentenced Balukh to three years and seven months in prison and issued him a 10,000 ruble (roughly $170) fine. But two months later, at an appeal hearing, the court overturned the sentence and ordered a retrial.
On December 1, Balukh was finally released from detention and placed under house arrest.
The 46-year-old said the ruling was unexpected.
“Honestly, I didn’t even have hope of this happening,” he said. “I actually thought they would just start inventing some other scheme.”
Although this has been a small victory for Balukh, his family, and his lawyers, the battle is far from over. Balukh lives on a farm, but the conditions of his house arrest prevent him stepping outside the home onto his property, which means he will be unable to continue his work. Furthermore, his communication with the outside world has also been severely restricted.
Balukh believes the conditions of his house arrest are ridiculous. “My mother will have to fertilize the land, do all the work around the household, and I will be sitting at home because they’ve imposed a ban on me leaving the house,” he said.
Balukh’s lawyer, Olga Dinze, said the defence had asked that Balukh be able to leave the house and communicate with his lawyers via designated phones, but the requests were denied.
He is also banned from speaking with witnesses, speaking on the phone, and using the internet.
“As a result, the defence intends to appeal the given decision within the specified time frame,” Dinze said.
Balukh is one of 56 Ukrainians held hostage by the Kremlin for their pro-Ukrainian views. He not only openly displayed pro-Ukrainian paraphernalia around his home, but also refused to receive Russian citizenship when the Kremlin authorities annexed the peninsula.
“He is Ukrainian”
In an interview with Hromadske shortly before his release, Balukh’s mother Natalya said her son never recognized Russia in Crimea. “He is like that in life, he is Ukrainian,” she said.
The 76-year-old, who has been looking after the farm in her son’s absence, said life has been difficult since her son’s arrest. Furthermore, she said the conditions of Balukh’s detention were deplorable and believes her son has become ill while in detention.
“They’re like animals there,” Natalya said. “My daughter-in-law brought him a coat, and somewhere in it was an old sim card from a phone, so they fined her 3000 [rubles]. They didn’t let her bring him anything after that. She hired strangers to make deliveries to him.”
Natalya said the Russian authorities would constantly pressure her son to give up his activism.
“If he behaved differently, surrendered...but he won’t surrender. That’s the kind of person he is,” she said. “He sees injustice and he won’t give up. He won’t let himself be broken.”
The Crimea Human Rights Group and the Crimean Centre for Business and Cultural Cooperation 'Ukrainian House' have organized a rally on December 8 in support of Balukh along Kyiv’s Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred Street.
/By Natalie Vikhrov