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How the state intends to release civilian hostages

The Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War will officially address civilians taken captive due to the armed aggression of the Russian Federation. We discussed this topic on Hromadske Radio

Estimated Reading Time: 12 min

How exactly will this process take place? We discussed this in the episode of the program «Free Our Relatives» with Oleksandr Kononenko, a Representative of the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights in the system of security and defense sector bodies. In the Ombudsman’s Office he oversees the area of prisoners of war (POWs) and civilian hostages.

Regarding civilian hostages and the mechanism for their release: Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights Dmytro Lubinets mentioned in December that approximately 28,000 Ukrainian civilians are currently held in Russian captivity. The release mechanism is complex because international law prohibits the detention of civilians, i.e., non-combatants. Ukraine insists on the unconditional release of all civilians, but Russia attempts to interpret the law in its favor to avoid responsibility. For instance, many civilians face charges of espionage, terrorist attacks, participation in illegal armed groups, and collaboration with special services. Russia portrays civilian hostages as prisoners of war, often forcing individuals to confess to being combatants under torture. Recently, the Ukrainian government updated the mandate of the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Now, the Headquarters will officially deal not only with military personnel in captivity but also with civilians held by the Russians.

How the state is seeking a format for the release of civilian prisoners

Oleksandr Kononenko: I would like to clarify some details regarding the figures right from the start. You mentioned 28,000 civilians who are allegedly held captive in Russia. In reality, we were referring to 28,000 Ukrainian citizens who have gone missing under special circumstances. This encompasses civilians, prisoners of war, and children.

Unfortunately, I must state that this figure is increasing; over 30,000 Ukrainian citizens are now considered missing under special circumstances. These include civilians, military personnel, and children alike.

A situation may arise where we regain control of our territories—Mariupol, Bakhmut, Avdiivka, Severodonetsk, Lysychansk—and these numbers could escalate further.

Presently, we possess information about 30,000 captured citizens, reflecting the number of appeals from our citizens to law enforcement agencies, specifically the National Police. These appeals are officially submitted, registered, verified, and comprehensively documented.

Oleksandr Kononenko. Photo by Media Initiative for Human Rights

How many civilians are held in captivity according to officiall data?

Oleksandr Kononenko: The official data for today is about 1,687 people. We have confirmation of this number of individuals being on the territory of the Russian Federation. These individuals are either illegally deprived of their liberty, victims of enforced disappearances, or illegally convicted. Among this category there are 857 people confirmed by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Why am I discussing this category? We still have a separate category (initially about 4,000 people) – these are citizens of Ukraine who were convicted and served their sentences in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. During the full-scale invasion on 24 February, they were not moved but remained in the temporarily occupied territory.

They are eventually released, and we are aware of this issue as well. Fortunately, these people still manage to leave for the territory of Ukraine, Thanks to our Georgian embassy and the Georgian authorities themselves, who have shown great understanding of these processes.

Read also: What challenges do civilian prisoners encounter upon release?

What is the number of civilian prisoners that have not been officially confirmed?

Oleksandr Kononenko: If we are talking about expanding the powers of the Coordination Headquarters, then there is some primary information from the Coordination Headquarters. People have applied to it, and we must say that the Coordination Headquarters has never refused to interact with our citizens. It has accepted relevant applications, opened relevant offices created for prisoners of war, and the same has been done for civilians.

According to our data, the approximate number of civilians today may be around 16,000, based on information from the Coordination Headquarters, the SBU Joint Centre, and relevant sources.

What will change after the Coordination Centre’s powers are expanded?

Oleksandr Kononenko: The most important thing in this process is to understand that the results depend not only on the Ukrainian side. We have never forgotten about civilians; it is a fundamental track. When our Armed Forces and Security Forces were forced to temporarily leave some territories, civilians were left behind, who protested, defended Ukrainian statehood, and made themselves heard. They are now suffering for it. Therefore, the state is obliged to pay attention and care to these people and take all measures to ensure their release and return to Ukraine.

We hope that the decisions made will strengthen this concentration of effort. An international platform for children has been created, in line with point four of President Zelenskyy’s Peace Formula. We are moving in a fairly concentrated manner here and hope for the appropriate results. Additionally, relevant countries declare their participation in this group, and we even expect the outcome of the preliminary talks in Qatar to indicate that Qatar, in particular, will join in solving the problem of both children and civilians who remain in Russia.

Why is there such a big difference between the official figures of civilian prisoners and appeals to the Coordination Centre, and why is it so difficult to find civilians?

Oleksandr Kononenko: The first and most crucial step is to confirm the whereabouts of a particular Ukrainian citizen, including children. Transferring an individual from the category of missing or disappeared under special circumstances to the category of a person who is either illegally deprived of liberty, in captivity, or illegally convicted or deported is an essential step. This will enable us to demand the return of these people to their families from the Russian side.

Why is there such a large discrepancy in the numbers? The register of missing persons under special circumstances has only been operational since May. In this short period, the Ministry of Internal Affairs has managed to systematize and accumulate information about our citizens, categorizing them as military, civilians, children, missing persons, and those in captivity. Unfortunately, for the Ministry of Internal Affairs, there is no category of «captured» from a legal perspective. Everyone is considered missing until their return, as there is no other confirmation of their whereabouts.

How will work with relatives of civilians in detention change?

Oleksandr Kononenko: The most crucial development for us is that within the Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War, a separate area has emerged to work with our civilian hostages, those illegally convicted. This problem has now become legally defined and clear. The state and relevant authorities have recognized this problem and are ready to work towards the return of these people.

It is worth noting that there can be no exchanges between civilians, and such exchanges will not take place.

What is the legal framework for this process? I believe this will be resolved, as much as we may oppose it, together with the Russian side. The most important point, as we convey to our relatives, is that progress is being made with the repatriation of prisoners of war, albeit with difficulties. The process of returning children is also advancing. The most challenging aspect is initiating negotiations with representatives of the aggressor country for the return of our civilian hostages. We have some hopes that this process can commence.

The best outcome for the families would be if we could change the small percentage of civilians released, especially since 2014. We understand that those people who have been there since 2014 are not victims of enforced disappearances. There are individuals who have been illegally convicted or recognized as terrorists by the aggressor country.

What could be the format for the return of civilian prisoners?

Oleksandr Kononenko: The very idea of exchanging even prisoners of war is wrong. There is a process of repatriation. As for civilians, we should not discuss it at all. There is a process of political and legal arrangements when people should be released by both sides, the warring parties who are opponents today, but political decisions must still be made, and civilians must still be released by both sides.

Why? For example, there is a website called «We do not abandon our own». Russia claims it does not abandon its own, but there are convicted citizens of the Russian Federation held here in Ukraine. They are requesting, among others, the Verkhovna Rada Commissioner Dmytro Lubinets, to deliver letters to Moskalkova. They even publicly addressed the President of the Russian Federation to initiate the process of returning civilians to Russia. The Ukrainian side is ready in this regard, and we are not imposing any conditions now. While some conventions may not be functioning today, appropriate decisions need to be made at the level of the National Security and Defence Council. The Ukrainian authorities are ready to improve the fate of Ukrainian citizens.

We aim to start the process of mutual release and the return of citizens to their respective countries, both Russian Federation and Ukraine. We are ready for this and prepared to discuss how we can release Russian citizens while welcoming Ukrainian citizens to our territory.

Is it possible to apply foreign experience of negotiations on the return of civilians?

Oleksandr Kononenko: After the formation of the platform, the OSCE made a powerful statement about the use of the «Moscow mechanism», and a meeting was held, even though it was strange for us because three civilian OSCE staff members are held captive by the Russian Federation.

Next, we have the latest conflict in Gaza. Qatar played a very active role in the negotiations on the return of civilian hostages between Israel and Gaza. Qatar’s involvement in these processes allowed for the release of people. While not all have been released, it is an example of the capabilities of this small but powerful country, including in some political processes.

It is an encouraging situation if Qatar officially recognizes its potential to negotiate and mediate between Ukraine and the Russian Federation.

Read also: Why do the occupiers release some prisoners and keep others — the story of a released prisoner from Kherson

Is it possible to monitor the conditions in which civilian prisoners are held?

Oleksandr Kononenko: If we consider the representative office of the International Committee of the Red Cross, situated in the Russian Federation, we are uncertain whether they have had the opportunity to observe any prisoners of war or civilian hostages. Essentially, all Ukrainian citizens on the territory of the Russian Federation are accused of a simplistic charge – «resistance to a special military operation», whether they are military personnel or civilians. The Russian authorities conveniently assert that there is no war, thereby denying the status of prisoners of war. Despite this, we recognize military personnel as prisoners of war, subject to the Geneva Conventions. However, civilians are not covered by these conventions, placing them in a more vulnerable position regarding the protection of their rights. They are accused of «resisting a special military operation», and until officially charged with «terrorism», «espionage», or a similar offense, their release is not considered.

We have documented cases where individuals were held for approximately a year and a half, only to be released when there were no grounds for further detention. While this is a positive development, the person endured suboptimal conditions for an extended period. Addressing this issue should involve international legal organizations, including the International Criminal Court.

What to expect from the International Platform for the Release of Civilians Illegally Detained in Russia?

Oleksandr Kononenko: Firstly, numerous relatives have urged for increased international pressure on this issue. Norway and Canada are the co-chairs of this platform. The inaugural meeting saw the participation of representatives from more than 50 countries and international organizations, with many expressing their potential involvement. A communiqué was developed during the process and offered to countries and ambassadors to sign and join the platform. We await the final number, and this figure may increase over time. The platform has been launched, initiated, and we hope it will continue.

You know what’s important? If we recall the OSCE Moscow Mechanism, which was initiated, a representative of the same OSCE was present at this platform regarding civilian hostages.

Will relatives of civilian prisoners need to update their information in connection with the expansion of the powers of the Coordination Headquarters?

Oleksandr Kononenko: Families have no limit on the number of times they can apply to state authorities. If families feel the need to apply or update information, they are free to do so.

I can assure you that all information from the joint SBU center, the Coordination Headquarters, or the Ombudsman’s Office is accounted for. This includes the Register of Missing Persons under Special Circumstances. This is the primary tool that every family and citizen of Ukraine should start with – contacting the national police and filing a relevant appeal.

The process of exchanging, searching for, locating, and returning Ukrainian citizens to their homes involves only law enforcement and security agencies in Ukraine. There are no other structures involved.

As a reminder, the Institute for the Study of War reported that the Russian military «sells» Ukrainian prisoners of war on the «black market» to Chechen paramilitary groups, which then conduct their own exchanges with Ukraine. These exchanges often involve Chechen soldiers held by the Ukrainian Armed Forces. These units may resort to the black market, as Chechens mainly perform police or logistical functions in the rear areas of the occupied territories of Ukraine, where there are fewer opportunities to capture Ukrainian prisoners of war for official exchanges.

In times of war, the program «Free our relatives» tells the stories of people, cities, villages, and entire regions that have been captured by Russian invaders. We discuss the war crimes committed by the Kremlin and its troops against the Ukrainian people.

The program is hosted by Igor Kotelianets and Anastasia Bagalika.

This publication is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the framework of the Human Rights in Action Program implemented by Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. Opinions, conclusions and recommendations presented in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government. The contents are the responsibility of the authors.

USAID is the world’s premier international development agency and a catalytic actor driving development results. USAID’s work demonstrates American generosity, and promotes a path to recipient self-reliance and resilience, and advances U.S. national security and economic prosperity. USAID has partnered with Ukraine since 1992, providing more than $9 billion in assistance. USAID’s current strategic priorities include strengthening democracy and good governance, promoting economic development and energy security, improving health care systems, and mitigating the effects of the conflict in the east.

For additional information about USAID in Ukraine, please call USAID’s Development Outreach and Communications Office at: +38 (044) 521-5753. You may also visit our website: http://www.usaid.gov/ukraine or our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/USAIDUkraine.


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