As the final tally, the Ukrainian President’s Office reported on 76 released Ukrainians, while an aide to the Ukrainian security council’s secretary mentioned that 127 people were handed over to occupied areas.
Meanwhile, the controversy behind the exchange is that Ukraine is going to hand over the Berkut riot police officers charged with the mass murder of Euromaidan activists back in February 2014, and the men sentenced to life imprisonment for the 2015 terror attack in Kharkiv.
The swaths of the Donbas – Ukrainian easternmost oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk – have been occupied by Russia since 2014. About 14,000 people were killed in the ongoing conflict.
The all-for-all prisoner exchange is among the paragraphs of the Minsk protocols signed in the Belarusian capital back in September 2014 and in February 2015 to settle the conflict in the Donbas. Among the signees were the members of the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG), representing Ukraine, Russia, and the OSCE. The signatures of Russian-appointed leaders of “LNR” and “DNR” emerged under both documents shortly after they were signed.
A few exchanges occurred under Minsk protocols. However, all of the Ukrainian prisoners held in occupied Donbas were never released and most of the time, the swaps were effectively blocked by Russia.
The previous prisoner swap in the ORDLO took place two years ago, in December 2017, when 73 captives held in the occupied Donbas were exchanged to 233 prisoners.
Even after the 233-to-73 exchange in 2017, at least 103 more Ukrainians remained hostage in ORDLO and 402 more were considered missing, according to the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). Meanwhile, earlier this year the NGO Media Initiative for Human Rights had the names of 119 Ukrainian hostages held in ORDLO on their list.
The intention to exchange prisoners once again was included in the communique of the peace talks of the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany in Paris on 9 December in the so-called Normandy Four format.
Later, the TCG negotiated the lists and details of the exchange at closed-door meetings.
Among others, Ukraine is going to hand over the officers of the Berkut riot police who have been tried in court on mass murder charges of Euromaidan activists back in 2014. The handover of the key suspects will effectively stall the Euromaidan case.
Other controversial figures to be swapped are three Kharkiv terrorists, sentenced to life imprisonment for killing four people in a terrorist attack on the participants of the march on the first anniversary of Euromaidan on 22 February 2015.
The Maidan massacre defendants, who have nothing to with ongoing conflict in the Donbas, have been apparently put on the exchange list on Russia’s demand. And the Ukrainian readiness to hand them over to Russian occupational authorities of ORDLO shows that the Russian demands go unchallenged by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The course of the exchange
“The verification process of Ukrainian prisoners before the exchange in Horlivka”
UNIAN reports that Ukraine is going to hand over 87 people, while the members of the “LNR” and “DNR” will return 55 Ukrainians, citing a representative of the “DNR”.
The Office of the Ukrainian President reported that the exchange started at 11:00 Kyiv time (GMT+2). Though the exact number of those to be exchanged has not yet been specified.
The video published by the Presidential Office on Facebook at 10:30 shows the beginning of the prisoner exchange at Mayorsk – the Ukraine-controlled suburb of occupied Horlivka:
At 13:00 the Office reported on Twitter that the first 25 Ukrainians have been released.
“The mutual release of the detained persons has finished. Our 76 are safe at the Ukraine-controlled territory. Details later,” the Presidential Office reports on Twitter.
— Euromaidan Press (@EuromaidanPress) December 29, 2019
The exact number of those swapped is not known so far. The initial reports mentioned 87 prisoners held in Ukraine to be exchanged for 55 Ukrainians held in captivity in occupied Luhansk and Donetsk. UNIAN cited a “DNR” source as saying that about 20 people held in Ukrainian prisons refused to be handed over to ORDLO. The latest report by the President’s Office says that 76 Ukrainians have been released.
Serhiy Syvokho, an aide to the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, says that Ukraine returned 76 people and gave over 127. 14 more refused to go to occupied Donetsk and Luhansk.
The reaction of the US Embassy in Ukraine:
— U.S. Embassy Kyiv (@USEmbassyKyiv) December 29, 2019
The official list of the released Ukrainians hasn’t been published yet. Among those mentioned in official reports and identified by journalists and social network users are:
- Roman His, 23-year-old Donetsk resident, sentenced by a sham court in occupied Donetsk to 11 years in prison for ‘espionage’;
- Oleh Halaziuk, Donetsk blogger held by “DNR” since August 2017;
- Bohdan Pantiushenko, a Ukrainian tankman captured in January 2015;
- Stanislav Aseiev, Donetsk blogger and journalist;
- Olena Sorokina, an owner of a pet shop in Pervomaysk, Luhansk Oblast who went missing in 2018:
- Maj. Serhiy Ivanchuk, in captivity since February 2017;
- Sgt. Ivan Deiev, in captivity since February 2017;
- Sgt. Roman Fursov;
- Tetiana Horbulych, a Schastia local abducted in Luhansk where she had visited her daughter on ‘espionage’ charges.
- Viktoria Voronina, a Luhansk resident accused of ‘espionage’:
Three more “Ukrainian spies” were the drivers who carried people from and to the occupied territory:
- Alchevsk resident Eduard Aloian;
- Antratsit resident Valeriy Tarasiuk;
- Dovzhansk local Denys Oleinykov.
The Security Service of Ukraine has published the full list of the Ukrainians released from captivity “under the patronage of President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy.” The list includes 12 prisoners of war, three of which were in captivity since 2015, and 64 civilians, 17 of which were illegally imprisoned since 2015-2016.
Brazilian national Rafael Lusvarghi convicted in Ukraine for participation in a terrorist organization was among those handed over to the occupied territory, according to his lawyer.