Ukraine has completed the largest prisoner exchange in three years of its war against Russia-led separatists. The government has released 233 prisoners in exchange for 73 Ukrainian captives held by the self-proclaimed “Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.”
The transfer comes as the much-anticipated result of international negotiations in Minsk, Belarus and will reunite dozens of long-separated Ukrainian families in time for the new year.
Ukrainian and separatist representatives brought their prisoners to the Mayorske checkpoint between government-controlled and separatist-occupied territory on the morning of December 27. Shortly before 2 p.m. (Kyiv time), they began the exchange process, which was carried out in two stage in the presence of representatives of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Red Cross.
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“It’s a very tense situation because everyone is really worried that something will harm this process and it will not go ahead,” Hromadske journalist Nastya Stanko said as the exchange began.
First, the Ukrainian authorities handed over 73 prisoners in exchange for 16 Ukrainian hostages held by the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LPR). Among those released from the “LPR” were Ukrainian soldier Valentyn Bohdan, whom Hromadske has profiled; Vladislav Ovcharenko and Artem Akhmerov, two Luhansk soccer fans imprisoned for allegedly spying for Ukraine; and Eduard Nedelyayev, a pro-Ukraine blogger charged with espionage and treason.
Next, Ukraine carried out its prisoner exchange with the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR). It released 160 prisoners and the separatists returned 58 hostages. Among those freed from the “DPR” were Ihor Kozlovsky, a prominent Donetsk-based scholar of religious studies imprisoned for his pro-Ukraine views (Hromadske has extensively covered his case); Oleksiy Kyrychenko, a Ukrainian volunteer soldier from Savur-Mohyla; and Volodymyr Fomichev, a 23-year-old blogger from the Donetsk region town of Makiivka who was jailed on weapons charges widely believed to be fabricated.
Photo credit: Facebook / Iryna Gerashchenko
While still in the occupied city of Horlivka, where the “DPR’s” prisoners were brought before the exchange, Fomichev shouted, “Makiivka is Ukraine!” — despite the presence of armed “DPR” fighters.
One of the most unexpected individuals to be freed was 27-year-old Yevhen Chudnetsov, a Ukrainian volunteer soldier who the “DPR” nearly sentenced to death for his membership in the ultranationalist Azov Battalion. A separatist “court” ultimately handed Chudnetsov a 30-year prison sentence, and he has spent over three years behind bars. Hromadske published an in-depth profile of Chudnetsov this summer.
But not everyone included on the official prisoner lists was present for the exchange. Ukraine was officially supposed to transfer 306 prisoners, however, authorities only handed over some 233 people. Of the 73 remaining prisoners, some have been previously released after serving criminal sentences on government-controlled territory, while others refused to return to Russia-occupied territory.
Photo credit: Facebook / Iryna Gerashchenko
In one noteworthy case, Volodymyr Sleptsov, the former mayor of the Donetsk region town of Toretsk, was due to be transported to the "DPR" as part of the exchange, but changed his mind mid-swap. He then hid on a bus carrying Ukrainian journalists and is now due to return to government-controlled territory.
Sleptsov was charged with participation in a terrorist group and infringement on Ukraine’s territorial integrity for his involvement in organizing the illegal referendum on “DPR” independence and declaring Toretsk a part of the self-proclaimed “republic.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine was supposed to receive 74 people detained by Russia-led separatists, but one woman decided to remain on occupied territory, reportedly because her family was based in Donetsk.
After their release, the Ukrainian prisoners were flown to the city of Kharkiv. From there, they are scheduled to arrive at Kyiv’s Boryspil airport later tonight. Their family and friend have gathered at the airport to await the arrival of their loved ones.
Outside Boryspil, Tetyana Oliynyk told Hromadske that she had received a call from her son Oleksandr, a Ukrainian soldier who had been held captive in the Donbas for almost three years.
“I heard his voice for the first time in a year-and-a-half,” she said. “And now I’ve heard his voice and he said, ‘Mom, I’m here.’ You cannot imagine what that means for a mother. I haven’t seen him for three-and-a-half years.”
But not everyone was able to travel to Boryspil to meet their loved ones. Ovcharenko's mother was unable to make the trip, but said she hoped her son would be greeted by friends in the capital. And several Donbas natives imprisoned for their pro-Ukraine views have no relatives in Kyiv.
Authorities hope this transfer will pave the way for the remainder of the prisoners to be exchanged. Many of them were not included on the current exchange lists.
Ukraine’s security service today announced that 103 Ukrainians remain detained in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The Tripartite Contact Group on Ukraine — which includes representatives from Kyiv, Moscow, and the OSCE — will raise the issue of another prisoner exchange in mid-January, Bohdan Kryklyvenko, a representative of Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, said in an on-air interview with Hromadske.
The “second round” of prisoner exchanges would likely involve Ukraine releasing 70 prisoners in return for 20 captives held by the separatist “republics,” he said.
“But let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Kryklyvenko added.
/By Natalie Vikhrov, Matthew Kupfer, and Maria Romanenko