After several increasingly tense weeks amid swirling rumors, a much-anticipated large-scale prisoner swap has finally happened between Russia and Ukraine. Among those who arrived in Kyiv this Saturday afternoon, newly released from Russian custody are 35 people. That number includes 11 Ukrainian prisoners – among them Edem Bekirov, Oleg Sentsov, Pavlo Hryb, Oleksandr Kolchenko, Stanislav Klykh, Mykola Karpyuk, Volodymyr Balukh, Roman Sushchenko - and 24 Ukrainian sailors, captured by Russia in November 2018. At around the same time, a plane with 35 Russian prisoners, released by Ukraine, landed in Moscow.
Let’s pause to celebrate. This long-awaited exchange is truly wonderful news for all those jailed for politically motivated reasons and who can now come home. Some who are gravely ill, like Edem Bekirov and Pavlo Hryb, can finally get urgently needed medical help. Others get to hug their families after years of separation.
Oleg Sentsov’s release is a momentous event for his family and supporters around the world, who have stood with him for the five years he has been unjustly jailed. For a long time, and up until the last moment, the Kremlin was not prepared to even discuss the possibility of Sentsov’s release, despite mounting international support for the Ukrainian filmmaker from Crimea. Russian authorities detained Sentsov in May 2014 and sentenced him to 20 years in jail on bogus terrorism charges in August 2015. In reality, Sentsov’s crime was speaking out against Russia’s occupation of Crimea and helping to deliver food and water to Ukrainian soldiers stranded at military bases in Crimea. Last year, Sentsov spent 145 days on a hunger strike, demanding the release of all Ukrainians held in Russia and in Crimea on politically motivated charges. In October 2018, he won the Sakharov Prize, the European Parliament's award for freedom of thought.
Before the swap, Ukraine released RIA Novosti journalist Kirill Vyshinsky, who was in pretrial detention facing dubious treason charges. Those charges should be dropped immediately. Journalists should not be jailed for their work.
Let’s also remember others who remain behind bars for their opposition to Russia’s role in the armed conflict in Ukraine. Many, like Sentsov, are from occupied Crimea. Since 2015, Russian authorities have prosecuted at least 63 Crimean Tatars, tainting them as “terrorists,” and handed down some horrendous sentences of up to 17 years. Many suffer in pretrial detention and some were tortured by Russian security officials trying to extract confessions.
There are also prisoners unlawfully held by fighters of Russian proxy forces in eastern Ukraine. Among them are pro-Ukraine bloggers and journalists Stanyslav Aseev and Oleh Halaziuk, and others.
They, too, should be freed.