Why Were Ukrainian and Russian Ombudspeople Denied Access to Prisoners?
6 July, 2018

Last month Ukraine’s Human Rights Ombudsperson Lyudmila Denisova and her Russian counterpart Tatyana Moskalkova agreed to each visit 34 prisoners in Ukraine and Russia. However by the next day the agreement had been breached. In the two weeks that followed, both ombudspersons reported that they had been denied access to prisoners on Ukrainian and Russian territory.

At a press conference in Moscow on June 29, Denisova said Kyiv is concerned that the humanitarian missions of both Ukrainian and Russian ombudspersons have been politicized and obstructed by Russia.

Denisova announced that Kyiv was ready to hand over 23 Russians convicted on Ukrainian territory in exchange for 23 Ukrainians held in Russian prisons.

Russia’s Human Rights Ombudsperson Tatyana Moskalkova in Lukyanivska Prison, Kyiv, June 18, 2018. Photo: Vyacheslav Ratynsky/UNIAN

The proposal was put forward by Iryna Herashchenko, a representative from the humanitarian subgroup of the Trilateral Contact Group, in May during a meeting in Minsk, where she said Ukraine would exchange 23 imprisoned Russians for Ukrainian political prisoners, including filmmaker Oleg Sentsov.

READ MORE: Sentsov Sees Family for the First Time in Years

Sentsov, whose health has been deteriorating amid an ongoing hunger strike in Labytnangi penal colony in Russia, was among the Ukrainian political prisoners to whom Denisova was denied access.

Hromadske looked into why the two ombudspersons were prevented from visiting imprisoned citizens in Ukraine and Russia.

Planned visitation

Last month Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached an agreement for Russian and Ukrainian human rights ombudspersons to visit political prisoners. On June 14, Denisova and Moskalkova reported that they agreed to each visit 34 citizens in Russia and Ukraine. Denisova planned to visit Sentsov, activist Oleksandr Kolchenko and Mykola Karpiuk, as well as other Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia. Moskalkova planned to visit Russian citizens imprisoned in Ukraine, as well as former editor-in-chief of RIA Novosti Ukraine Kirill Vishinsky, held in Kherson.

However, on June 15, Denisova announced that she was denied a visit to Sentsov. The following day, she was denied a visit to Karpiuk. Moskalkova claimed Denisova’s visitation of Sentsov and Karpiuk was in violation of Russian legislation.

Ukrainian Human Rights Ombudsperson Lyudmila Denisova in a Moscow prison, Moscow, Russia, June 18, 2018. Photo: Lyudmila Denisova's Facebook

Three days later, Denisova and Moskalkova met to discuss the visitation of Ukrainian and Russian citizens. The commissioners agreed that Denisova would visit Sentsov, and Moskalkova – Vyshinsky. However the following day Denisova stated that all the agreements with Moskalkova had been torn apart without explanation.

On June 26, Moskalkova arrived in Kyiv, where she met with the sailors of the arrested Kerch vessel "Nord." She also planned to meet with Russian citizen Maxim Odintsov. However, she was prevented from visiting Odintsov. Denisova, in turn, didn’t get to meet with Ukrainian journalist Roman Sushchenko, who is now in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison.

READ MORE: From Crimea to Siberia: How Russia is Tormenting Political Prisoners Sentsov and Kolchenko

Then on June 28, Denisova made another attempt to visit Sentsov. Denisova this time traveled to the Labytnangi colony with Moskalkova. However, she later posted on Facebook that Moskalkova didn’t want to take the same car for the last leg of the journey. In another post written later that morning, she stated that the Russian ombudsperson and her colleagues drove right past her and entered the colony while she, again, was denied a visit to Sentsov.

The following day at a press conference in Moscow, Denisova said that Moskalkova justified denying access to Sentsov by the fact that Denisova didn’t have Russian citizenship.

"It would be strange if the Ukrainian ombudsperson had Russian citizenship," Denisova said.

Furthermore, she also disputed Moskalkova’s claims of Sentsov adopting Russian citizenship. Denisova stated that Russia hadn’t produced a single document to back up such claims.

Following Moskalkova’s visit to Labytnangi last week, the Russian human rights ombudsperson reported  that Sentsov’s health was satisfactory, although concerns remained as a result of his hunger strike. Sentsov has been on hunger strike since May 14 to protest the detention of Ukrainian political prisoners on Russian and Russia-occupied territory.

Ukrainian Human Rights Ombudsperson Lyudmila Denisova meets with her Russian counterpart Tatyana Moskalkova, Moscow, Russia, June 18, 2018.  Photo: Lyudmila Denisova's Facebook

At least 64 Ukrainian political prisoners are being detained in Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea.

At the press conference in Moscow on June 29, Denisova said that she believes Russia is concealing the state of health of Ukrainian political prisoners on Kremlin-controlled territories.

"None of them have access to independent humanitarian organizations or the Red Cross Committee. We don’t know the truth about their health,” she said.  

She added that Russia's refusal to give Ukrainian consuls access to political prisoners is a violation not only of international law, but also of Russian legislation.

What is the procedure?

According to Denisova, the Ukrainian side has adhered to the agreement on simultaneous visits to prisoners by ombudspersons of both countries. However, Ukrainian authorities say since the Russian side has not fulfill its obligations, Moskalkova will be only be allowed to see prisoners in Ukraine only after Denisova is allowed to visit Ukrainian prisoners in Russia.

Ukraine’s former Human Rights Ombudsperson Valeriya Lutkovska told Hromadske, the prisoner visitation procedure for foreign ombudspersons differed significantly in Russia and Ukraine because the ombusdpersons of the two countries have different powers. Ukraine’s procedure is simpler than Russia’s.

"In Ukraine, the law allows the [Ukrainian] ombudsperson to grant any expert access to the detention centers at their own behest, even if they’re foreign,” explained Lutkovska. “Therefore, Ukraine’s ombudsperson doesn’t have a problem providing this authorization… All that’s required is the ombudsperson's signature on the ombudsperson’s letterhead.”

“In Russia, the ombudsperson doesn’t have these powers, so they must get permission from the authority under which the prisoner is registered. This is a court or investigative body,” Lutkovska added.

Moskalkova accused Denisova of violating this procedure. However, the Ukrainian ombudsperson’s office told Hromadske that all issues related to the commissioners’ admission to prisoners on this occasion were regulated at the presidential level, therefore there shouldn’t have been any problems.

Russia’s Human Rights Ombudsperson Tatyana Moskalkova in Lukyanivska Prison, Kyiv, June 18, 2018. Photo: Andrei Novikov/Hromadske

Representatives at the office of the Ukrainian ombudsperson said these agreements were made at the highest level, with the consent of both the Russian and Ukrainian presidents. The office said, if this was only about procedure then it would be worth discussing what Russia was saying – but this was a matter of political will.

Moskalkova’s spokespeople told Hromadske that denying ombudspersons access to citizens of their countries "is a political issue."

Hromadske’s interlocutor, who is familiar with the work of ombudspersons, also says that this issue is too politicized.

"At the end of the day, the presidents agreed on something and instructed the ombudspersons to meet with the prisoners. But then Denisova came to Russia and went to visit Sentsov in the colony. Of course, without the help of the Russian ombudsperson, this visit would be impossible. In response, Ukraine decided not to let Moskalkova visit Odintsov,” the interlocutor suggested.

"But this is also wrong,” said the interlocutor. “If they had allowed Moskalkova her visitations, Ukraine could have demonstrated transparency and openness and would have been able to appeal to international organizations to get access to Ukrainian citizens."

/Translated by Natalie Vikhrov