Ukraine and Russia on Sept. 7 conducted the first-ever big prisoner exchange since the beginning of Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2014.
It happened as a result of the agreement between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
The 35 Ukrainians flew home after spending months or even years in Russian jails. They are 11 Ukrainian political prisoners, who were captured in Russia or Russian-annexed Crimea. Some of them were sentenced for more than 20 years in prison for bogus cases.
There are also 24 Ukrainian sailors, who were captured by the Russian coast guards and officers of FSB Russian security service in the neutral waters of the Black Sea in November when trying to pass to Azov Sea through the Kerch Strait on three vessels.
Ukraine sees them as prisoners of war, while Russia, which denies its involvement in the war against Ukraine, tried them as criminals in civilian courts for allegedly trespassing the Russian territory. They faced up to six years in prison.
Here’s what we know about them:
Volodymyr Balukh, 48, is a farmer from the village of Serebryanka in the north-west of Crimea. He has been a pro-Ukrainian activist in Crimea. After Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, Balukh refused to take the Russian citizenship and hoisted Ukrainian national flag atop of his house and hung a table reading “18 Heavenly Hundred Street,” in reference to the Ukrainian anti-government protesters killed during the EuroMaidan Revolution in 2013-2014.
In December 2016, he was arrested after the Russian law enforcement allegedly found some bullets in the attic of his wife’s house. In August 2017, a court in Crimea sentenced him to five years in prison for illegal possession of weapons. Balukh pleaded not guilty. In March 2019, Russian authorities moved him to a prison colony in the city of Torzhok in Russia’s Tver Oblast.
Oleg Sentsov, 43, is a writer and filmmaker from Crimea. He was an activist of EuroMaidan in Crimea and was bringing food to Ukrainian soldiers blocked by Russian troops during the annexation of the peninsula. In March 2014, Russian security forces kidnapped him in Simferopol and brought to Russia. In 2015, a Russian court sentenced him to 20 years in prison for “plotting terrorist attacks.” Sentsov denied all accusations and Amnesty International described his case as “a cynical show trial”. He has been held in a penal colony in Russia’s far north. In the summer of 2018, Sentsov nearly died after spending 145 days on hunger strike demanding to release all Ukrainian political prisoners from Russian jails.
Oleksandr Kolchenko, 29, is a student, left-wing activist, a supporter of pro-Ukrainian rallies in Crimea. Russian authorities arrested him in Crimea in May 2014 and accused him of a terror attack at the Simferopol local offices of the United Russia pro-Kremlin party and the Communist Party. Kolchenko admitted that he had held guard on the street while Molotov cocktails were thrown at night at the empty buildings of the two pro-Russian parties as an act of anti-Russian protest. He denied it was terrorism. Kolchenko was brought to Russia and sentenced to 10 years in jail in the same case as Sentsov. He serves his prison term in Kopeysk in Russia’s Chelyabinsk Oblast.
Stanislav Klykh, 45, is a historian who lived in Kyiv. In August 2014, he went to a Russian city of Orel to visit a friend and was arrested there by Russian authorities. A Russian court sentenced him for 20 years in jail for alleged fighting on the Chechen side in the First Chechen War as a member of UNA-UNSO Ukrainian nationalist organization. Klykh denied that. He was severely tortured and started suffering from mental health issues. He serves his prison term in Verkneuralsk city of Chelyabinsk Oblast. In 2018, he was moved from prison to a mental hospital for several months and then was sent back to prison.
Mykola Karpyuk, 55, is an activist, former deputy leader of UNA-UNSO and one of the leaders of the Right Sector, both Ukrainian nationalist organizations. He was arrested in March 2014 while crossing the Russian border and later charged with fighting against Russia in the First Chechen War. Another person mentioned in this criminal case was former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, whom the Russian prosecutors also called a veteran of the Chechen war, something that Yatsenyuk denied and that could hardly be true. In May 2016, a Russian court sentenced Karpyuk to 22 years in prison. He serves his prison term in the city of Vladimir.
Pavlo Hryb, 21, is a student. In summer of 2017, he went to meet with a girlfriend in Homel, in Belarus, but was abducted by Russian law enforcement and transferred to Russia. Russian prosecutors charged him with plotting a terrorist attack, claiming he offered his friend to organize an explosion during a school ceremony in the Russian city of Sochi. Hryb denied it. In March 2019, a Russian court sentenced him to six years in prison. Hryb has severe liver problems and his father said he could die in Russian prison without urgent treatment.
Roman Sushchenko, 50, is a correspondent of Ukrainian state-owned news agency Ukrinform in France. In September 2016, Sushchenko arrived in Moscow from Paris for a private visit and was arrested by Russian law enforcement. Russia accused him of spying for Ukraine’s military intelligence, which Sushchenko denies. European Parliament in 2017 called his case political. In June 2018, a Moscow court sentenced him to 12 years in prison. He serves his term in Kirovo-Chepetsk near Ural.
Yevhen Panov, 44, is a driver and an electrician at Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Plant, and a veteran of Russia’s war against Ukraine. He arrived in Crimea in August 2016 reportedly to help with the evacuation of one family from the peninsula to the mainland Ukraine. But Russia’s FSB state security service arrested him in Armyansk, a city on the Crimean border, and accused him of plotting sabotage against Russia along with four other men. Panov made confessions that were widely screened on Russian propagandist TV channels but later admitted he was forced to do it under torture. In July 2018, a Russian court sentenced him to eight years in prison. He serves his prison term in Omsk in Siberia.
Olexii Syzonovych, 63, is a retiree. Syzonovych is a resident of Krasnodon, a city in Luhansk Oblast, which is now controlled by Russian-proxy troops. He was captured by Russian law enforcement in August 2016 in Kamyanske-Shakhtinsk, a Russian city near Ukraine’s border. Russian prosecutors accused him of plotting terrorist attacks in Russia. Syzonovych said he was beaten and tortured. In July 2017, a Russian court sentenced him to 12 years in prison. Syzonovych serves his prison term in Irkutsk Oblast in Siberia.
Artur Panov, 21, is a Ukrainian political activist and blogger. Born in Krasnodon city of Luhansk Oblast, which is now under Russian control, he supported the EuroMaidan Revolution and was helping the Ukrainian army in Russia’s war against Ukraine. In December 2015, he was captured by Russian law enforcement under unknown circumstances and was put in a detention center in Russian Taganrog. In August 2017, a Russian court sentenced him to 8 years for allegedly planning a terror attack in Russia.
Edem Bekirov, 58, is a Crimean Tatar activist, who protested against Russia’s annexation of Crimea. In December 2018, he was arrested by Russia’s law enforcement in Crimea for allegedly illegal possession of weapons and preparing explosives. He faced up to 8 years in jail. In August 2019, he was released from prison in Simferopol being obliged to appear in court for hearing on his case. Bekorov has a disability.
Ukrainian sailors sit inside a defendants’ cage prior to a hearing at a court in Moscow on July 17, 2019. (AFP)
UKRAINIAN SAILORS, CAPTURED BY RUSSIA
The 24 Ukrainian sailors were captured by the Russian coast guards and officers of FSB Russian security service in the neutral waters of the Black Sea in November when trying to pass to Azov Sea through the Kerch Strait on three vessels Berdiansk, Nikolop and Yany Kapu. Ukraine sees them as prisoners of war, while Russia, which denies its involvement in the war against Ukraine, tries them as criminals in civilian courts for allegedly trespassing the Russian territory. They face up to six years in prison. In May, an international maritime court ordered Russia to release Ukrainian sailors and vessels, but Russian officials claimed they wouldn’t recognize the court decision in this case.
Here’s what we know about them:
Roman Mokryak, 33, is a lieutenant of Ukraine’s navy. He commanded Berdiansk small armored artillery boat captured by Russians. During the capture, Russians hit his boat with artillery fire, wounding several crew members. Born in Kirovohrad Oblast, Mokryak served in Ukraine’s navy in Crimea. After Russia annexed the peninsula he remained true to his oath and left to the mainland Ukraine. In April 2019, then-president Petro Poroshenko awarded him with Bohdan Khmelnytsky Order.
Andriy Artemenko, 25, is a senior sailor at Berdiansk artillery boat. He was wounded during the capture of the boat by Russians. Artemenko was born in Kirovohrad Oblast.
Bohdan Holovash, 23, is a senior sailor at Berdiansk artillery boat. He suffered a concussion and shoulder trauma during the boat capture. He was born in Kremenchuk, in Poltava Oblast. Holovash was among the 103 cadets of the Nakhimov Naval School in Sevastopol who left Crimea after Russian annexed the peninsula in 2014 and moved to Odesa.
Yuri Bezyazychny, 29, is a senior sailor at Berdiansk artillery boat. He is a student of Odesa National Maritime University. His father also was a navy sailor and was killed in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Andriy Eyder, 19, is a sailor at Berdiansk artillery boat and the youngest Ukrainian political prisoner in Russia. He was wounded during the boat capturing and undergone surgery in Kerch. Eyder was born in Odesa.
Denys Hrytsenko, 34, is a captain of 2nd rank. Hrytsenko was a commander of three Ukrainian vessels captured by Russias in the Black Sea. He was one of the defenders of Slavutych warship against Russian in Crimea in March 2014. Ukraine eventually lost this ship, it remained in Sevastopol. Hrytsenko led Ukrainian ships which managed to leave the peninsula. He lived in Odesa.
Andriy Shevchenko, 28, is a midshipman at Yany Kapu tugboat, another vessel captured by Russians. He was born in Odesa Oblast, lived in Odesa and has served in Ukranian navy since 2011.
Sergiy Chuliba, 30, is a mechanic of Yany Kapu tugboat. He served in Crimea at Kherson, a torpedo recovery vessel, and was one of the Ukrainian sailors whom Russian ships blocked in Donuzlav lake in Crimea in March 2014. His lawyer said that while being kept in a Russian jail Chuliba kept on asking about a dog Jessie who was kept by the crew of Yany Kapu as a pet and was also aboard the vessel when it was captured. After the boat’s capture, Jessie was initially kept by Russian border guards in Crimea until one Ukrainian journalist picked up the dog and brought it to Chuliba’s family living in Khakhovka city of Kherson Oblast.
Bohdan Nebylytsia, 25, is a senior lieutenant, commander of Nikopol small armored artillery boat. He was one of two dozen cadets of the Nakhimov Naval School in Sevastopol who dared to sing the Ukrainian national anthem during the ceremony where the Russian flag was first hoisted at the school instead of the Ukrainian one in March 2014. This way the cadets expressed their protest to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Later they all left the peninsula for mainland Ukraine and finished their studies in Odesa.
Vyacheslav Zinchenko, 21, is a senior sailor at Nikopol, a small armored artillery boat. He turned 21 while being imprisoned in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison. Zinchenko’s cellmate is a minister of one of Russia’s Caucasus republics, according to his lawyer.
Serhiy Tsybizov, 22, is a sailor at Nikopol small armored artillery boat. He was born in Shepetivka in central Ukraine. While being in prison in Moscow, Tsybizov acquired cardiac problems.
Serhiy Popov, 27, is captain lieutenant at Nikopol small armored artillery boat. Popov was born in Donetsk and served in Crimea when Russia annexed the peninsula in March 2014. He stayed loyal to the Ukrainian army and left Crimea for Odesa.
Vladyslav Kostyshyn, 24, is a sergeant at Nikopol small armored artillery boat. He served at Nikopol boat as an intern. Kostyshyn is one of 103 cadets of the Nakhimov Naval School in Sevastopol, who left Crimea after Russian annexed the peninsula and moved to Odesa in 2014.
Andriy Oprysko, 47, is a senior sailor at Nikopol small armored artillery boat. He has served in Ukrainian navy since 2016.
Volodymyr Varimez, 27, is a senior sailor, radiotelegraph operator at Yany Kapu tugboat. Born in Odesa Oblast, he has served in Ukraine’s navy since 2012. He initially served in Crimea but left it for Odesa after Russian annexation in March 2014.
Yury Budzylo, 46, is a senior sailor, a midshipman at Berdiansk artillery boat. His father was also a sailor. According to his wife, regardless of his age, Budzylo is planning to retire only after Russia’s war in Ukraine comes to the end.
Oleg Melnychuk, 24, is a commander of Yany Kapu tugboat. Born in Cherkasy Oblast, he signed a contract with the Ukrainian navy in 2014 after finishing his conscript service.
Mykhailo Vlasiuk, 34, is a senior sailor at Yany Kapu tugboat. He started his service in the navy as a ship cook, then became a mechanic-electrician.
Volodymyr Tereshchenko, 25, is a senior sailor at Yany Kapu tugboat. He turned 25 while being in a Russian prison.
Viktor Bespalchenko, 31, is a senior sailor at Yany Kapu tugboat. He was born in Kherson Oblast and lived in Odesa. He served as a senior sailor at Kherson, torpedo recovery vessel, in Crimea and left the peninsula in 2014 after it was annexed by Russia. In June he married his fiancee Tetiana Shevchenko in Moscow Lefortovo jail.
Yevhen Semydotsky, 20, is a sailor at Yany Kapu tugboat. He was born and grew up in Luhansk Oblast. His family says he initially studied for a car mechanic but always dreamed to become a sailor.
Volodymyr Lisovy, 34, is a captain of 3d rank at Yany Kapu tugboat. He lived in Odesa.
Andriy Drach, 24, is one of two officers of the SBU state security service who were present at the Ukrainian vessels captured by Russians. He serves at the military counterintelligence unit of SBU. According to the SBU, Drach was one of the cadets of the Nakhimov Naval School in Sevastopol who dared to sing Ukrainian anthem during the ceremony where the Russian flag was first hoisted there in March 2014. Then he moved to Odesa and finished his studies there.
Vasyl Soroka, 28, is a senior lieutenant and the second officer of the SBU state security service present aboard the Ukrainian vessels captured by Russians. He was wounded during the capture. According to the SBU, since the beginning of Russian aggression in 2014, he performed different tasks for them, including in the war zone in eastern Ukraine.
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