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Kremlin-backed militants demand amnesty, put hostage without arms or eyesight on trial

Volodymyr Zhemchugov during an interrogation by the “LNR”. Photo: screenshot from video
Kremlin-backed militants demand amnesty, put hostage without arms or eyesight on trial

Heavily injured Ukrainian Volodymyr Zhemchugov has spent over 8 months as a hostage of the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” (“LNR”). Despite being in  heavy condition after an amputation of both arms and losing nearly all eyesight, his exchange together with 116 others provided by the Minsk peace plan is getting delayed indefinitely while “LNR” representatives attempt to strangle out an amnesty from international negotiations.

Volodymyr Zhemchugov before captivity
Volodymyr Zhemchugov before sustaining injuries

On 28 September 2015, Volodymyr Zhemchugov got injured in an explosion in Donbas. He has now spent over 8 months imprisoned in the “LNR.” Kyiv claims that Volodymyr’s injuries were sustained after an accidental tripwire detonation. Meanwhile, the Russian-backed militants of the self-proclaimed republic are accusing the man with amputated arms, multiple injuries, and no eyesight, of carrying out acts of sabotage on behalf of the Ukrainian army.

Elena Zhemchugova, Volodymyr’s wife, tells how she found out about her husband’s misfortune in an interview to “Policemen” of the “LNR” phoned her on 29 September 2015, while she was in Georgia, asking questions about what could have happened, whether her husband was a businessman, and told that he was given a grenade. “They didn’t say everything, and I kept wondering whether it was all really true,” she recalled. All the relatives she asked to visit her husband were not allowed to enter the hospital and were later interrogated. Why? “Volodymyr was quite patriotic, and could have expressed his ideas when he was there,” she guesses.  

Volodymyr made trips to his native Krasnyi Luch in the Luhansk Oblast from Georgia. When the war in Donbas started, he transported his elderly mother away to Kyiv, and continued to help his friends – brought them money, food, and medicine, helped them leave the occupied territories.   

“We lived through the 2008 war in Georgia and [Russia’s] annexation of South Ossetia, understanding that the same will happen to Donbas. It would be the next Transnistria. When we came to Luhansk in 2014, the SBU building was already seized. From all sides, people were saying ‘Russia will help us.” […] Volodymyr was very distressed about it all,” Elena told.

Today both of Volodymyr’s arms are amputated, and he hardly sees after a retinal detachment, he has a damaged eardrum, part of his intestine has been removed, and shrapnel exits his leg all the time.

“The first three months, he was held in a hospital ward alone under surveillance. He needs urgent operations on his eyes, but they won’t be held in the ‘LNR,’ they have no resources. It’s very difficult for him, as he gets no adequate care,” Elena says. She got to speak to him a couple of times, he asked how things were at home, and said that he really did feel bad – there were moments when he was forced to crawl on the floor, because of spinal pains. As doctors told him later, he can’t move at all, even stand up, to avoid total retinal detachment.

“Volodymyr hadn’t abandoned his Ukrainian views even under the threat of not receiving treatment, – his wife continues. -And the saddest part is, he hasn’t abandoned them, but Ukraine can’t get him out of there.”

Volodymyr’s wife has pleaded to the European court of Human Rights, the EU delegation to Ukraine, to the heads of the Normandy Four, President Poroshenko, and even to the Pope and Queen of Great Britain to help her husband be exchanged while still alive. Additionally, Zhemchugov’s mother, daughter, and wife applied three times to the International Red Cross and UN representative in Ukraine. However, the representatives of these organizations are not allowed to visit him. International and intergovernmental organizations – the ICRC, the UN, the OSCE, the Normandy format were powerless to solve the issue of release of Volodymyr.

“The relatives of all hostages go through this; it doesn’t help,” Elena states.

Hostage to political arrangements

Ukraine, Russia, and the Russian-backed separatists of the “LNR” and “DNR” have signed the Minsk peace agreements, which have a clause dedicated to exchanging hostages and unlawfully detained persons on the “all for all” principle. The exchange should have been held on day 5 after the withdrawal of heavy weapons, but since that is still unimplemented, exchanges take place based on bilateral agreements.

Read more: 12 months of Minsk-2. Examining a year of violations

There were a few unsuccessful attempts to exchange Zhemchugov. All of them failed.

On October 10, Zhemchugov’s name was included in the list for an exchange of hostages. At each meeting, the Ukrainian side of the Tripartite Minsk Group for the settlement of the situation in the Donbas raises the question of his exchange.  

This seems to have led to results  – a one-for-one exchange arranged to take place on 17 November, and the hopeful Ms.Zhemchugova arrived at the borders of the Occupied Regions of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (ORDLO) with a reanimobile. It turned out, in vain – after a week of waiting and contradictory statements, the “LNR” representative Olga Kobtsova said that the self-proclaimed republic spent too many resources on heavily wounded Zhemchugov to trade him for only one person from the Ukrainian side. The list was extended to include a convict serving a 5-year sentence for separatism and four women.

On 26 November, a video on the separatist resource Newsfront appeared, where Zhemchugov in visibly severe condition told that he collaborated with people who introduced themselves as Ukrainian officers by transporting packages and placing mines. He explained his injuries by the detonation of a mine he installed.  

Zhemchugov was accused to have done the work of a saboteur that destroyed a railroad and electricity pylon. He was formally charged on December 25. Now the “LNR” demands at least five people for his exchange.

Until 30 May 2016, Volodymyr was held at the Luhansk Republican Hospital, where he received minimal treatment. But after the judicial investigation was completed and the case went to trial, the  measure of restraint was changed, and he was taken to the detention facility of the Luhansk prison, where he doesn’t receive necessary treatment. “It is not possible for us to transfer medicine to him. The court’s decision can be delayed for months. It is hard to imagine what the person in such condition as my father may feel now,” his daughter Anastasia told.

Classic terrorist methods

According to the latest data, at least 117 Ukrainians are still being held hostage in the ORDLO.

There are discussions planned to exchange 25 for 50 prisoners in the nearest future. But it’s not clear when and how it could take place. According to Iryna Herashchenko, who represents Ukraine in the humanitarian working group of the Trilateral Contact Group that signed the Minsk agreements, the Russian-backed separatists are insisting on holding a total amnesty for all separatists, including those that have committed war crimes, before an exchange of hostages.

The militants are not hiding the fact that the illegally detained may be released ONLY AFTER THE AMNESTY. It means that the Ukrainians, that are illegally kept in captivity, become hostages of the ORDLO. Militants who are holding the hostages to negotiate about their own future are acting as real terrorists. IT’S PURE BLACKMAIL!” she wrote on facebook on 18 May.

Herashchenko added that from the 66 appeals that Ukraine made regarding the hostage exchange, only 13 received replies from the ORDLO representatives. She also stated that the practice of amnesty before the full cessation of military action is unknown anywhere in the world.

Furthermore, it’s more than possible that the criminal offenses Zhemchugov is charged with are attempts to ramp up his price to establish a better “exchange rate” – criminal proceedings have been opened against other hostages where proof of guilt is dubious.

Ivan Kozlovskyi, a 60-year-old professor of religious studies, is another such hostage. Being initially detained for posts in social media, recently he had a criminal case for “spying” opened against him.

“Saving the lives of hostages on condition of fulfillment of agreements is the prerogative of terrorists. And as a rule, few people in the world conduct negotiations with terrorists,”

wrote human rights activist Oleksandra Matviychuk back at the start of 2016, urging political leaders to place the issue of releasing hostages above all others of the Minsk agreements. Then, a public campaign to #FreeDonbasHostages was also held. However, in the next half year, only 13 hostages were released.

Total amnesty to escape responsibility for war crimes

Now, the ORDLO representatives are demanding a total amnesty for themselves and their war-crime committing accomplices (including for committing terrorist acts) before releasing hostages like Zhemchugov, whose life depends on receiving treatment, or proceeding to implement the clause of the Minsk agreement on holding local elections.

The “amnesty” clause of the Minsk agreements has been questioned by human rights groups – the scale of human rights violations is estimated to be so gross that establishing justice is unthinkable without investigating the gravest ones. A joint report by human rights organizations found that  every second prisoner held in the ORDLO prison was  tortured, and 16% witnessed executions.

“The lives of 130 people cannot be contingent on the holding of elections through which Russia wants to legalize its control of occupied territories and force Ukraine to subsidize them. Nor can they depend on total amnesty for all ‘in relation to events that took place in particular districts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine,’ so that contrary to the provisions of international human rights laws, Motorola (nom de guerre of Russian citizen and resident, and now Donbas mercenary and executioner Arseniy Pavlov), who personally finishes hostages off, can be released from any responsibility,”

wrote Oleksandra Matviychuk back in January 2016.

Together with the prolonged, simmering war in Donbas, which is stressing the unity of EU’s anti-Russia sanctions, the Kremlin-backed militants are using Ukrainian hostages to pressure Ukraine into conforming to their desires and securing Russian control over Ukraine.

You can draw attention to the case by posting materials with the hashtags #FreeDonbasHostages and #FreeZhemchugov to social media.

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