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Ukrainian MP and former military pilot Nadiya Savchenko.
Halya Coynash, Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group.
On the same day that Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada passed a resolution calling on Russia to release Ukrainian MP and former military pilot Nadiya Savchenko, her lawyers have expressed concern over her state of health in Russian detention.
Lawyer Ilya Novikov reports that she is suffering an ear inflammation and that the prison doctors are not dealing with the situation. “Loss of hearing in that ear is already total, and it looks as if it will get worse”, he writes.
Savchenko’s defence are stepping up their efforts to obtain the release of the former pilot who was captured by Kremlin-backed militants in the Luhansk oblast and is now facing dubious charges in Russia. On Dec 15 a Moscow court will consider two appeals from the defence, including one against her extended term of detention.
On Dec 11 the Verkhovna Rada adopted a Resolution “On an appeal to Russia’s State Duma and President Vladimir Putin to release Ukrainian pilot and MP Nadiya Savchenko”.
The Resolution states that Ms Savchenko was elected to parliament on Oct. 26 2014 from the Batkivshchyna Party and that her signed oath was publicly demonstrated in parliament on Nov 27 meaning that she has now been sworn in as MP.
“The Verkhovna Rada states that Ukrainian MP and member of the Batkivshchyna faction … Nadiya Savchenko will, outside the quota system will represent the entire Ukrainian parliament in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and will be a member of Ukraine’s permanent delegation to PACE.
The statement goes on to explain that this is the first time that an elected member of the Verkhovna Rada is unable to take up her duties because she is clearly unlawfully and on groundless charges held in detention in another country in overt violation of international human rights.
Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada therefore calls on the State Duma, the Russian President and other Russian bodies and officials to take all measures to secure Nadiya Savchenko’s release
It also calls for the “release of all Ukrainian nationals who, during the period of armed conflict in the east of Ukraine, were taken prisoner, illegally taken to the Russian Federation and held there against their will”.
321 MPs voted for the resolution. There were no votes against, however 28 MPs did not vote at all.
Media reports say that the resolution calls for the release of Nadiya Savchenko, Crimean film director Oleg Sentsov and other prisoners, however the wording means that it only applies unequivocally to Nadiya Savchenko. She was taken prisoner by Kremlin-backed militants from the so-called ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ on around June 17. On July 3 a Russian court remanded her in custody and she has been in Russian detention ever since. Savchenko says that she was taken across the border with a bag over her end and hands tied, and has made her attitude to the ‘lying Russian courts’ abundantly clear. Russia’s Investigative Committee claims that she voluntarily entered Russia, pretending to be a refugee. The Investigative Committee studiously avoids mentioning her capture by the militants, but even so the Russian version is difficult to take seriously. The investigators have also threatened to charge her with ‘illegally crossing the border’.
The investigators claim that in June, as a member of the Aidar Battalion, Savchenko found out the whereabouts of a group of TV Rossiya journalists and other civilians outside Luhansk, and passed these to fighters who carried out a mortar attack which killed TV Rossiya employees Igor Kornelyuk and Anton Voloshin.
The prosecution tried hard to prevent inclusion of evidence from the defence which apparently demonstrates that Ms Savchenko was already in custody when the two journalists were killed. This was in such flagrant breach of the law that their objections were finally overridden.
Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, 31, fought in eastern Ukraine in the ranks of the Aidar volunteer battalion and in June was taken prisoner by militia forces near the town of Shchastya in Luhansk Oblast. © Courtesy
Russia’s authoritative Memorial Human Rights Centre has declared Nadiya Savchenko a political prisoner.
Russia is holding at very least 5 other Ukrainian nationals whose cases arouse grave concern. Oleg Sentsov, civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko and two other Crimean opponents of Russian annexation of the Crimea were arrested in Simferopol in May and were soon taken, against their will, to Russia [Moscow], where they remain in detention. The FSB claims that they were behind a ‘Right Sector’ plot to carry out terrorist acts and destroy major parts of the infrastructure in Simferopol and Sevastopol on Victory Day, May 9. Russia has constantly demonized the far-right and ultra-nationalist Right Sector and paid effectively no head to the party’s dismal showing in both presidential and parliamentary elections.
There were no terrorist acts although the arrests were made after the supposed date planned for them. The only ‘evidence’ comes from ‘confessions’ given by Gennady Afanasyev and Oleksy Chirniy. Both claim that Sentsov ‘masterminded the plot’. Both Sentsov and Kolchenko have repeatedly alleged that they were subjected to torture and that Sentsov was warned that if he didn’t give testimony against EuroMaidan and the new Kyiv government, they would claim that he was the mastermind of the purported ‘terrorist plot’.
Sentsov is a well-known film director with a growing international reputation. He is also a solo father with two young children, one of whom is autistic. If this makes him a wildly improbable candidate for ‘terrorist mastermind’, so too must the claim that Kolchenko, a left-wing anarchist, was part of a far-right nationalist party ‘plot’. Add to this the fact that the only ‘evidence’ is from confessions obtained while the men were totally in the control of the Simferopol enforcement bodies without access to lawyers or contact with their families.
Amnesty International has called for Sentsov and Kolchenko’s release from Russian detention and Memorial has recognized them as political prisoners.
Yury Yatsenko, a Lviv law student in his final year, was not illegally taken to Russia but there are very strong grounds for believing that the charges against him and his detention in a Russian SIZO are impelled by political considerations and do not bear scrutiny.
Yatsenko and his friend Bohdan Yarychevsky, were detained in Russia’s Kursk oblast in early May. They were held in a police station without food or sleep for two days, and not allowed to ring their relatives, a lawyer or the Ukrainian consul. During that time the FSB [Russian security service] turned up, interrogated them, suspecting that they had been ‘sent by Dmytro Yarosh’ [the leader of Right Sector] or by Ukraine’s SBU. The ‘grounds’ for such suspicions were a map showing Kursky Station found on their mobile telephone. Yarychevsky explains that they’d saved it in order to get their bearings and know how to get to the station to catch the coach home. The FSB, however, deemed the photo ‘suspicious’ and possibility indicating a plan to blow up the station.
Yatsenko and Yarychevsky were not officially detained for imaginary ‘radicalism’ or ‘nationalism’, nor were they suspected of any criminal offence. A court on May 8 ruled that they had committed an administrative offence by ticking the box ‘private purpose’ on the border entry form, when they should have ticked the ‘tourism’ box.
Both young men were subjected to torture with the FSB wanting them to publicly testify that a military junta had taken over in Ukraine and to ask for political asylum. They constantly received threats that if they didn’t cooperate, criminal charges would be concocted, with drugs or weapons planted.
This is basically what happened, though against only one of the two – Yury Yatsenko – who has been charged with ‘smuggling explosive devices’. Yarychevsky was deported and is taking part in efforts to obtain his friend’s release.
- Savchenko Case: No legal grounds, no evidence and total distrust in Russian justice.
- G20 Putin Pack: Captured by Militants in Ukraine, Tried in Russia.
- Nadiya Savchenko: I’m sick of Russia and your lying courts.
- Chief suspects in abduction of Nadiya Savchenko named.
- Savchenko: Abducted, then charged with ‘illegally crossing the border’.
- Nadiya Savchenko: Unbroken in Russian detention, now Ukrainian MP.
- “They torture POWs here” Moscow voices in defence of Nadiya Savchenko.
- Nadiya Savchenko’s treatment amounts to torture, lawyers say.
- Savchenko: Appeal delayed while psychiatric assessment goes right ahead.
- Memorial recognizes Nadiya Savchenko as a political prisoner.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Photograph: Denis Grishkin / Vedomosti.
Allison Quinn, The Moscow Times.
As human rights activists on Thursday reported that at least six homes linked to Islamic insurgents had been burned to the ground by masked men near Grozny following calls by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov to punish militants’ kin, federal lawmakers moved in Moscow to hold the families of insurgents criminally liable for the actions of their relatives.
Human rights group Memorial published a report Thursday providing detailed accounts appearing to verify earlier media reports that masked men had descended upon Chechen villages in the aftermath of last week’s terrorist attack in Grozny, leaving a trail of charred homes in their wake.
The Dec. 4 attack sent shockwaves through the republic and saw 14 policemen killed while battling the militants. At least 10 of the militants were killed, and dozens on both sides were injured amid the chaos.
The village homes were destroyed after relatives of Islamic insurgents involved in the Dec. 4 attack on the Chechen capital identified the bodies of their loved ones, and on the same day Kadyrov declared via Instagram that family members of militants would be deported and their homes razed to the ground in retaliation for their relatives’ terrorist activities.
The first home destroyed in an apparent act of retaliation for the attack belonged to Yunus Gekhayev, whose son Yusup had been identified as one of the Dec. 4 attackers a day earlier. Witnesses told activists from Memorial that armed, masked men pulled up in a vehicle on Dec. 6 before rounding up all the home’s inhabitants and making them wait on the street until the home was engulfed in flames.
Some of the other homes destroyed between Dec. 6 and 7 had no direct connection to the Dec. 4 attackers. One had been vacant for more than a year, Memorial reported, though the deceased owner of the home had a son who was thought to be involved with the republic’s underground insurgency.
Although the identities of the masked arsonists remain unknown, human rights activists have expressed concerns that Kadyrov’s statement about holding the families of militants responsible for their actions may have encouraged the attacks.
“It’s time for Russian leaders to take a clear position on this savage form of collective punishment, and not make it look like they are encouraging it,” Tatyana Lokshina, deputy director of the Moscow branch of Human Rights Watch, wrote in the report.
Amnesty International also condemned the incident in a statement released Thursday, referring to it as an “outrageous violation of international law.”
Kadyrov seemed unfazed by the effect his words had, however, championing himself through his Instagram account Thursday as Chechnya’s chief human rights defender.
“Earlier I declared that relatives should answer for the criminal actions of their sons, if they did not stop them themselves or turn to police. Some Kalypin stood up for the militants and their relatives,” Kadyrov said, referring to Igor Kalypin, chairman of the Committee Against Torture and a member of the Kremlin’s human rights council.
On Wednesday, Kalypin had appealed to Russia’s prosecutor general to look into the legality of Kadyrov’s statement about punishing the relatives of militants.
At least one Russian lawmaker has expressed support for Kadyrov’s idea, however.
Roman Khudyakov of the Liberal Democratic Party has submitted a bill to the State Duma that would hold relatives of militants criminally liable for failure to inform the authorities. Relatives would face charges if they were aware of the activities of their loved ones, “if they foresaw or should have foreseen danger to the public … and permitted an attack to happen or treated [the situation] carelessly,” the text of the bill reads.
Separatists from the Chechen “Death” battalion stand in a line during a training exercise in the territory controlled by the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, eastern Ukraine, on Dec. 8, 2014. Maxim Shemetov / Reuters.
Chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is great), dozens of armed men in camouflage uniforms from Russia’s republic of Chechnya train in snow in a camp in the rebel-held east Ukraine.
They say their “Death” unit fighting Ukrainian forces has 300 people, mostly former state security troops in the mainly Muslim region where Moscow waged two wars against Islamic insurgents and which is now run by a Kremlin-backed strongman.
Seasoned Chechen fighters, whose combat experience often dates back to the 1994-96 and 1999-2000 wars, fight on both sides in east Ukraine, adding to the complexity of a conflict in which the West says Russian troops are involved.
“This is volunteer battalion Death,” a deputy commander of the group who only gave his nickname “Stinger” said at a former tourist camp the unit turned into their base outside of the rebel stronghold of Donetsk in east Ukraine.
“There are about three hundred of us in the Donetsk region. We have battlefield experience ranging from 10 to 20 years starting from 1995,” said the man in his 40s, a pistol fixed to his thigh.
He had a little Chechen flag in green, white and red stitched to his cap and spoke Russian with a strong Caucasus accent. Several cars with Chechen registration plates were parked in the camp.
Russia sides with the rebels in east Ukraine but denies sending serving troops to reinforce them. Some fighters on the ground admit to being former Russian servicemen, or “on leave.” Moscow has said any Russians fighting there are volunteers.
In Chechnya, two brutal wars quashed the separatist insurgents but unrest is still simmering.
Gunmen attacked a police post and captured a building in the regional capital of Grozny last week and at least 20 people, including 10 police and 10 suspected militants, were killed in gunbattles that ensued.
Violence erupted just hours before President Vladimir Putin was due to give a major speech in Moscow, a symbolic challenge to the man credited for the Russian army victory in the second Chechen war.
Reestablishing Moscow’s control over Chechnya and then introducing an uneasy peace under Ramzan Kadyrov, whom critics and rights campaigners accuse of heavy-handed tactics and massive rights violations, is seen by Putin’s supporters as a key achievement.
In Ukraine, Stinger’s men are sworn enemies with another group of Chechens who fight on the opposite side of the conflict and support the Kiev government troops.
Some of them have Western passports after fleeing Russia following the two wars. They say Moscow is theirs and Kiev’s joint enemy and that Chechnya is occupied by Russia.
Stinger, however, said Chechnya was being destroyed in the wars of the 1990s and became peaceful again only when some local leaders allied with the Kremlin.
Some of those in the Death unit said they had initially fought against Russia in Chechnya but later switched sides and were amnestied by a former Kremlin-allied head of the region, Ramzan’s father, Akhmed Kadyrov.
“Now we are [former] soldiers and officers of the Russian army, of Russian special forces, mostly veterans of war campaigns,” Stinger said.
- Crimea, Chechnya and Putin’s Double Standards.
- Chechnya’s Kadyrov ‘Blacklists’ Obama, EU Officials Over Ukraine.
Russia’s Dozhd TV has been forced to leave its Moscow studio. Photograph: Denis Abramov / Vedomosti
Anna Dolgov, The Moscow Times.
Russia’s main independent television channel, Dozhd, has been forced to leave its Moscow studio for the second time in as many months, but is continuing its broadcasts from an apartment in the capital, news reports said.
The digital channel has been struggling for survival ever since it was dropped by major cable providers in January after publishing a controversial poll about World War II.
Dozhd had been broadcasting from a studio belonging to Snob magazine, owned by billionaire and 2012 presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, under a leasing agreement that was supposed to last until February.
But the deal was abruptly canceled and the channel was told to leave the premises by Monday, Forbes Russia reported, citing a company source.
The move followed a similar eviction in October, when Dozhd was given notice to leave its studio in a building next to Snob’s offices — in what was widely interpreted as a sign of the Kremlin’s crackdown on liberal media.
Dozhd resumed its broadcasts this week from an apartment in Moscow.
It has received a number of offers for new rental spaces, including from independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Dozhd chief editor Natalya Sindeyeva told Ekho Moskvy radio this weekend, but it remained uncertain about how permanent those offers were, considering the recent slew of evictions.
“We felt certain that we will last until the end of January at Snob,” Sindeyeva told Ekho Moskvy. “So we relaxed a bit, to be honest.”
Using a regular apartment is only a “temporary solution, because it’s not a studio but a spot from which a signal can be sent as long as there is an Internet connection,” she said.
Ekho Moskvy host Irina Petrovskaya said the setup was reminiscent of a widespread Soviet-era practice when music groups that faced government retribution for diverging from the regime’s ideological stance on art were banned from performing in concert halls and played for their fans in tightly-packed private apartments instead.
The comparison is not so far-fetched: Several Russian venues recently canceled scheduled performances by Soviet-era rock legend Andrei Makarevich after the musician criticized President Vladimir Putin’s policies in Ukraine, and Moscow officials denounced him as a “traitor.”
- Cable Providers Drop Independent Dozhd TV Amid Pressure.
- Dozhd Begins Week-Long Fundraising Campaign.
- Dozhd Fights to Save Independent Reporting.
President Vladimir Putin approaches to shake hands with his French counterpart Francois Hollande during a meeting at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport, Dec. 6. Photograph: Maxim Zmeyev / Reuters
Alexey Eremenko, The Moscow Times.
The weekend meeting between the French and Russian presidents has given France a chance to become “the new Germany” for Russia, which lost its last Western ally after a falling-out with official Berlin, analysts say.
French mediation “is aimed at preventing Russia-EU relations from going to the dogs,” said Tatiana Kastueva-Jean of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) in Paris.
For France, reaching out to Russia has the benefit of boosting President Francois Hollande’s flagging rating and upholding Paris’ longtime strategy of relative independence in foreign affairs.
But the success of Hollande’s bid depends on both the Kremlin and the other Western powers, said Arnaud Dubien, head of the French-Russian think tank Observo.
“Everybody loses if no one acts now,” Dubien, whose think tank is affiliated with the French-Russian Chamber of Commerce, said Monday.
Hollande held a snap meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Saturday at Moscow’s Vnukovo Airport.
The agenda was dominated by Ukraine, where fighting persists between a pro-Russian insurgency and governmental forces in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
“I very much hope that in the near future we will have a final cease-fire agreement” on Ukraine, Putin said after the meeting, Reuters reported.
He also endorsed the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine, indicating that Russia did not plan to annex the rebel-held regions as it did with Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula in March.
For his part, Hollande spoke about a possible end to Western sanctions imposed on Russia over its involvement in Ukraine, linking it to the hopefully forthcoming cease-fire.
In an apparent follow-up, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko — whom Hollande reportedly consulted before meeting Putin — announced new talks with rebels starting Tuesday.
Experts said Moscow and Paris appeared to have found common ground on Ukraine — though under-the-table deals may have been thrown into the mix.
“France likely pledged to guarantee that Ukraine would not join NATO,” Dubien said. Kiev joining the alliance is a longtime fear for Putin’s government.
Don’t Mention the War(ships)
Though France has backed EU sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, it has taken a notably moderate stance toward Moscow.
Hollande was one of the few Western leaders who did not give Putin a hard time at a G20 meeting in Australia’s Brisbane last month.
Nor have French authorities pressured French businesses to cut connections to Russia like Germany did, said Sergei Fyodorov of the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Russia-France bilateral trade stood at an admittedly modest $15.6 billion, or 2.4 percent of Russia’s total foreign trade in the first 10 months of this year, according to Russia’s Federal Customs Service. It has shrunk during the past few years.
France’s willingness to go easy on Russia may have been due to the 3 billion euro ($3.7 billion) lawsuit Moscow threatened over the two Mistral-class helicopter carriers it commissioned in 2010.
Hollande said in September that the ships’ delivery was being postponed over Russia’s role in Ukraine.
Putin said that the Mistrals were not discussed during his meeting with Hollande over the weekend, Reuters reported — a claim that experts polled by The Moscow Times were inclined to believe.
Paris is apparently trying to prevent the single issue of the Mistrals from dominating the bilateral agenda, said Kastueva-Jean, who heads the Russia-NIS (New Independent States) Center at IFRI.
Germany Out, France In
Russia’s prime ally in the West until recently was Germany, whose bilateral trade with Russia, tellingly, stood at $56 billion (8.8 percent of Russia’s total) between January and October, according to customs figures.
Chancellor Angela Merkel had advocated a softer stance on Russia from the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine.
But last month she joined the hard-liners after extensive talks with Putin at the G20 summit, where she reportedly failed to sway him on Ukrainian separatists.
“Hollande’s reaching out to Putin is an attempt to balance out Germany’s influence in the EU,” Kastueva-Jean said.
“France is the last big country that can mediate between Russia and the West,” Dubien said.
There is a recent precedent for Hollande’s attempts to play peacemaker with Russia: In 2008, his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy brokered the end to the “five-day war” between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway province of South Ossetia.
Hollande, struggling with dismal approval ratings, is clearly keen to follow in Sarkozy’s footsteps, experts agreed.
But he is also enacting France’s general drive toward a relatively independent foreign policy, which dates all the way back to Charles de Gaulle, said Fyodorov of the Russian Academy of Sciences. De Gaulle dominated French politics from World War II to the late 1960s.
However, much depends on whether Putin will — or, indeed, can — really influence the ragtag band of rebels in eastern Ukraine, analysts said.
And just as vital is whether official Brussels and Washington would be willing to back France’s diplomatic effort, or whether they will stick to their hard-line position, Dubien said.
“We’ll know within days,” the analyst said. “But if we miss this chance to end the crisis, the window of opportunity will close for a long time, months at least.”