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27 Dec, 2017 11:49

Kiev & Donbass hold E. Ukraine conflict’s largest prisoner exchange

Kiev & Donbass hold E. Ukraine conflict’s largest prisoner exchange

In Donbass, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has seen its largest exchange of prisoners, between Kiev and the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics.

The Ukrainian authorities were to hand over 306 prisoners to the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk (DPR) and Lugansk (LPR) and receive 74 prisoners in return, according to the agreement between the sides.

Ukrainian President Poroshenko's representative in the parliament, Irina Lutsenko, has confirmed that the prisoner swap was completed successfully. “Good news we can already talk about. The exchange has concluded. The Ukrainian side received 74 hostages, who were held in captivity in the occupied part of Donbass. They’re returning home,” she wrote on Facebook.

LPR representative Olga Kobtseva said that they have been “handed 75 people.” DPR ombudsman Darya Morozova said that “the prisoner exchange was completed 80 percent, with more work on the lists to follow” as not all of the persons agreed upon with Kiev have been delivered. According to Morozova, 73 prisoners were returned to the Ukrainian side, while one opted to stay in the breakaway Donetsk region.

The Ukrainian parliament’s human rights ombudsman, Valeria Lutkovskaya, said that not all of the people on Kiev’s list were delivered in the exchange. “Forty-three people who should have been among the 306 prisoners from the Ukrainian side have served their sentence and were released from custody. Therefore, they didn’t come,” Lutkovskaya told Hromadske TV. Ten to 15 people were also “refusing to return” to the self-proclaimed republics at the exchange point, she added, with Red Cross-mediated talks reportedly held to confirm their decision.

Lawyer Valentin Rybkin, who represents several prisoners held by Kiev, said that none of his eight clients was brought for exchange. Those clients include Russian citizen Evgeny Mefedov, who was arrested in 2014 in Odessa on charges of encroachment on Ukraine’s territorial integrity. “The information that they refused to be swapped provided by Ukraine is false,” Rybkin told TASS.

The parties have been preparing for the landmark exchange for almost a year and a half. Disagreements repeatedly put the event in jeopardy, but an agreement has eventually been reached. 

The last exchange of prisoners in Donbass took place more than 15 months ago. According to the Minsk agreements on the settlement of the conflict, the parties vowed to conduct an exchange of prisoners based on the “all for all” principle, but the progress stalled due to disagreements, including those on the lists of persons to be exchanged.

Both sides repeatedly blamed each other for trying to disrupt the process. Kiev also faced legal hurdles as some of the prisoners were charged with “serious crimes,” legally preventing them from being released.

Russian President Vladimir Putin previously urged the parties to resolve any obstacles by the end of 2017, as he supported the initiative of Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, the leader of the Ukrainian Choice – People’s Right movement, who met Putin in mid-November. The Russian president then discussed the initiative with the leaders of the self-proclaimed Ukrainian republics over the phone.

The date for the exchange was finally set for December 27 on Monday, after Russia’s Patriarch Kirill met with the leaders of the breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Leonid Pasechnik, as well as Medvedchuk. On Tuesday, Zakharchenko said he had issued a pardon of prisoners. “The last conditions were negotiated,” he said, voicing hope that “the Ukrainian side will keep its promises.” Pasechnik announced he had also signed a pardon on Wednesday.

The place and names of people being exchanged was not disclosed in advance for security reasons.

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OSCE official Martin Sajdik has welcomed the agreement, calling on the sides to ensure appropriate conditions for the prisoner swap.

“I welcome the agreement to exchange detained persons on December 27, 2017, reached by the parties to the conflict,” he said in a statement cited by TASS on Tuesday. Sajdik noted that the exchange “is an important step that the prisoners and their families have been waiting for” and has an important “symbolic meaning ahead of the holiday season.”