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How to release journalists-hostages of the Putin regime?

We spoke with Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, chairman of the Committee on Freedom of Speech, regarding the media workers kidnapped by the Russians. Last week, the Verkhovna Rada supported his resolution to facilitate the release of journalists held hostage by the Putin regime.

How to release journalists-hostages of the Putin regime?
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«By drawing attention to the category of journalists, we highlight the plight of all civilian hostages»

Yaroslav Yurchyshyn: Our shared objective is the liberation of all civilians. Russia fabricates numerous cases. On one hand, it falsifies claims that individuals like Vlad Yesypenko, Iryna Danilovych, Nariman Dzhelal, and others arrested in the occupied territories are Russian citizens, despite the majority not having received Russian passports. However, Russia issues passports to all residents of the occupied territories and often presents them during trials as alleged proof of citizenship, thereby subjecting them to its criminal law, which it lacks jurisdiction to do.

Accessing civilian hostages, including journalists, is challenging. All information is consolidated by the Coordination Headquarters for Prisoners of War. Through it, we verify data received by human rights activists, primarily through lawyers handling cases involving Russian hostages. This poses a double risk for lawyers, as obtaining the status of a foreign agent in Russia is easy and leads to numerous problems.

The situation is highly complex. Therefore, as a Committee and as the Verkhovna Rada, we opted to categorize journalists separately. Firstly, international law safeguards the work of journalists during conflicts and wars, with both conflicting parties obligated to uphold these rights, which Russia violates.

Secondly, during my recent visit to Germany, I discussed our captive journalists with the deputy chairman of the Committee on Culture and Information.

How does this mechanism function? We’re addressing at least 26 captive journalists, while the global community discusses thousands of civilians in captivity. By spotlighting one category, we effectively bring attention to all.

We’ve reached out to all international organizations with mechanisms to influence global human rights situations, including the European Parliament, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe. Additionally, we’ve engaged specialized NGOs like Reporters Without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists. Already, the International Press Institute and numerous other organizations with various leverage mechanisms have approached us during the process.

For instance, Reporters Without Borders appealed to the OSCE under the Moscow Mechanism, a special framework established by the OSCE to document violations by Russia and Ukraine. They primarily focus on Russia, which aligns with our commitment to adhering to international standards, unlike Russia, which consistently disregards them.

The OSCE has furnished a comprehensive report containing a wealth of information. We can leverage it in two ways: first, as evidence in our legal proceedings, including the impending tribunal against Russia, and second, to highlight pressing issues, such as the case of Victoria Roshchina, a journalist who contributed to various Ukrainian publications, with her latest work being for Ukrainska Pravda.

The situation remains highly challenging. For over a quarter, we have had no reliable information about Victoria’s whereabouts. Both Europe and the Western world are actively utilizing all available channels, including liaising with the Ombudsman, utilizing business networks, and employing informal procedures, to at least provide Victoria’s relatives with information regarding her well-being and whereabouts.

The Russian authorities attempt to portray Crimean Tatar and Melitopol journalists as part of an underground organization with the aim of destabilizing governments. Concerning Vlad Yesypenko, the situation is dire. He has served most of his term, which was imposed entirely unlawfully. However, several elements of his case were omitted from the initial verdict, leaving room for manipulations that could result in an extension of his sentence. Such tactics have been recurrent in cases involving Crimean political prisoners under the Putin regime.

That’s why garnering widespread, global attention is crucial. The Western world possesses numerous mechanisms, many of which remain untapped. These include imposing stricter sanctions, implementing personal sanctions against individuals responsible for issuing verdicts, broadening the Magnitsky list, or establishing another list targeting those involved in cases against Ukrainian civilians.

To many, these individuals are merely statistics. Proportionally, they represent a small fraction of all civilian hostages. However, for each family affected, these individuals are unique and irreplaceable. Moreover, for us as a nation, every individual we manage to secure the release of holds immense importance.

Read also: How the Moscow Mechanism will help release illegally detained civilians

«Russia as a terrorist country will raise the price»

Yaroslav Yurchyshyn: Pressuring Russia through additional sanctions targeting Russian banks would prove far more effective than relying on statements like Joe Biden’s 3-5-7 plan. However, it’s evident that such actions would impact the entire US economy. Therefore, sanctions should be tailored specifically to address particular offenses rather than being generalized.

Numerous resources tied to the Russian government exist in many countries. Confiscating a single luxury yacht could easily lead to the release of several of our citizens, as cynical as it may sound.

On the Ukrainian side, discussions about potential exchanges are ongoing. There was a proposal to exchange Nestor Shufrych for Ukrainian journalists, which, in terms of value, might be the most beneficial solution. However, the willingness of Russia to engage in such swaps remains uncertain, given the significance of the figures involved.

Our primary objective is the safe return of every Ukrainian citizen. While we have established international mechanisms for prisoners of war, the situation regarding civilians is considerably more complex. We must exhaust all available options. We acknowledge that Russia, being labeled a terrorist state, will likely demand higher prices. However, no price is too high when it comes to human life and well-being. For instance, individuals like Irina Danilovich face health issues and lack proper medical care, constituting torture—a fact that will be highlighted in international courts. Our mission is to ensure she survives until the moment of her release.

Read also: Political sponsor for those illegally imprisoned by the Russians — explains the wife of the civilian hostage

«The release of 26 journalists is not a competition against the release of other civilians»

Yaroslav Yurchyshyn: The appeal from the Verkhovna Rada to release all civilian hostages was adopted back in 2022, and efforts in this regard are ongoing. It is in everyone’s interest to draw attention to the plight of civilian hostages through various means.

When we raised the issue of Ukrainian journalists in the Bundestag, our colleagues immediately proposed two resolutions. The first addressed Ukrainian journalists’ protection and Russia’s obligations regarding freedom of speech. The second focused on the release of all Ukrainian hostages, encompassing civilians and military personnel in Russian-controlled territories. By highlighting one category, we effectively broaden the scope for addressing other categories.

The Ukrainian state’s objective is to secure the release of all individuals. We will utilize every available mechanism to achieve this goal, emphasizing, uniting, and reinforcing our efforts. The release of 26 journalists does not overshadow the release of other civilians. Approaching the issue through specific categories increases our chances of gaining attention on the international stage, especially considering the existence of organizations dedicated specifically to journalists.

When relatives advocate for their loved ones, they not only speak about their own family members but also shed light on the hundreds and thousands of individuals facing similar circumstances. It’s crucial to recognize that we are all united in our desire to secure the release of civilian hostages.

Effective measures are those that directly impact those accountable for this crisis—the Russians. Actions taken near Russian embassies in Europe not only draw attention to the plight of Ukrainian civilian hostages among Russians, prompting reactions, but also among citizens of the host countries witnessing these events.

Read also: Why illegally detained civilians are left without social protection from the state

On the availability of information regarding civilians in detention

Yaroslav Yurchyshyn: The situation varies significantly. In the majority of cases, there was little to no information available about individuals detained following the onset of full-scale aggression, such as Dmytro Khilyuk. We recognize that the Russians aim to demoralize us and coerce cooperation. We have documented instances of torture and other forms of psychological and physical coercion being used. When coercion fails, they attempt to portray our hostages as combatants—individuals who resisted Russian aggression. For instance, they endeavor to depict a sizable group of journalists affiliated with online publications in Melitopol as collaborators who, purportedly holding Russian citizenship, opposed the occupying authorities.

Each case presents its own unique circumstances. Take, for instance, the case of Dmytro Khilyuk. Until recently, we had little information about his situation. It wasn’t until the Red Cross received details regarding the fabrication of a case against him that we gained insight. Dmytro was taken hostage during the occupation of the Kyiv region. Subsequently, we discovered attempts to portray him almost as a combatant.

For individuals facing fabricated charges, we collaborate with international organizations to identify lawyers who can dismantle the false accusations. This endeavor holds significant importance for us, as each case will undergo appeals in international courts. The most challenging scenarios arise when we lack information and are unsure of how to proceed. Therefore, our primary objective is to obtain information about the individual’s whereabouts and situation, even if it means relying on international partners, organizations, human rights groups, and journalists.

Read also: 108 days in Olenivka and no compensation for captivity from the state

Regarding the expansion of the Magnitsky List

Yaroslav Yurchyshyn: We are collaborating with the Helsinki Commission of the US Congress, which champions the Magnitsky List and its enlargement. There’s a significant challenge here, given the upcoming major elections in the US. Consequently, there are numerous matters that should already be in progress. However, this doesn’t negate the importance of undertaking preparatory actions with institutions that remain operational.

In conjunction with Reporters Without Borders, the International Federation, and the European Federation of Journalists, we are exploring various avenues to determine where we can contribute. Securing a resolution from Ukrainian authorities was crucial for us, as it provides the platform from which we can advocate. Whenever we engage with international partners, they often inquire: «What steps have you taken in this regard?» Thus, having this resolution grants us more leverage. Therefore, I anticipate that we, along with the Council of Europe, the OSCE, the Red Cross, and specialized organizations, will intensify efforts in this direction.

Read also: Helping civilians in illegal detention and their families — NGO «Egida-Zaporizhzhia»

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 Ihor Kotelyanets 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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