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Ukraine’s strange collaboration with Russia over deportations

Article by Halya Coynash

December 4, 2017

Ukraine’s strange collaboration with Russia over deportations

Ukraine has been in a state of undeclared war with Russia since the latter’s invasion of Crimea in early 2014 and its aggression in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian Security Service [SBU] are not loath at times to make use of this, claiming a ‘Russian link’ where there is almost certainly none.  More often, however, they demonstrate a baffling willingness to collaborate with their counterparts in the Russian Federal Security Service [FSB]. Neither the SBU nor Ukraine’s Migration Service have undergone any reform since Euromaidan, which is highlighted by their treatment of Russian asylum seekers.

 

Abduction

In September 2016, the SBU effectively abducted 26-year-old Amina Babaeva, who had just applied for asylum in Kharkiv. Babaeva is originally from Dagestan, but had been expelled from Turkey, after the authorities learned that her ex-husband had become involved with ‘so-called Islamic State’.  She was deported, but allowed to choose another country rather than Russia. Sadly, her belief that Ukraine could be trusted because of its conflict with Russia proved unfounded. Initial attempts to prevent her entering Ukraine were thwarted by human rights activists, and after almost two days at the airport, Babaeva was freed on September 11. She lodged an asylum application the following day. Migration officials, however, then used various pretexts to keep her in in their offices until the evening when she was abducted, taken by force to the border and handed over to the FSB. The SBU claimed against all evidence that the young woman had voluntarily left for Russia. The FSB on that occasion had not asked for Babaeva to be handed over to them, and did not try to detain her. This was not something that the SBU could have anticipated.

 

Human rights activists had been alerted from the outset and the case gained considerable publicity[1].   Babaeva had a friend in Kharkiv who knew to ring NGOs.  It is possible that others in a similar situation to Babaeva never succeeded in entering Ukraine at all.

 

Extradition

Over the past year Ukraine has detained at least ten people whom Russia has put on the Interpol Red Notice List. The State Migration Service and SBU work in close collaboration, with both stubbornly oblivious to multiple reasons for not viewing Russia as a safe and law-based country.  Such reasons include the ever-mounting number of Ukrainians, like Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, Crimean Tatar leader Akhtem Chiygoz and journalist Roman Sushchenko, whom Russia is holding in detention or has imprisoned after politically-motivated trials. In some of these cases, serious doubts arise over the adequacy of Interpol’s checking procedure before adding names to its list.

 

The most disturbing example came to light in May 2017 after Ildar Valiev, a Russian Tatar, was detained at the airport in Odesa, where he had been living with his wife and four children. He was detained on May 24 by border guards, apparently because he had been placed on the Interpol Red Notice List, at Russia’s request, on charges of ‘involvement in a terrorist organisation’.  The organisation – Hizb ut-Tahrir – is legal in Ukraine, and Russia has never provided an adequate explanation to justify the terrorist label. It is nonetheless using this to sentence men, often on the basis of a secret witness testimony, to very long sentences[2]. Russia’s Memorial Human Rights Centre considers all those convicted of such ‘involvement’ to be political prisoners, which Interpol could surely have ascertained before issuing an alert on Valiev.

 

His detention was especially galling as Russia is now persecuting Ukrainian Muslims on identical charges in occupied Crimea with 19 men either convicted or indefinitely remanded in custody. Valiev was released by the court of appeal on June 8. There were no grounds for delay since Ukraine’s legislation specifically prohibits extradition where criminal prosecution is not possible in Ukraine. Other situations have been no less clear, making the SBU’s behaviour particularly worrying. Ruslan Meyriev is a 31-year-old lawyer, originally from Ingushetia, who has lived in Ukraine since 2013, first in Crimea, where he met his Crimean Tatar wife, and then, after Russia’s invasion, in mainland Ukraine.  Interpol placed him on the list although the ‘terrorism’ charges concerned supposedly ‘encouraging another person to carry out terrorist activities and planning a terrorist act’ while Meyriev himself was in Ukraine. While in detention, SBU officers pressured Meyriev to ‘confess’ to a firearms charge so as to enable them to keep holding him in custody. Meyriev was finally released from detention only after the Head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, or self-governing body, and member of Ukraine’s Parliament, Ukrainian MP Refat Chubarov offered to act as guarantor.

 

The Migration Service has, however, rejected his application for refugee status. Asked why, during the appeal hearing in March 2017, the migration official asserted that the charges against Meyriev were ‘under an article of the criminal code which is not political’, and that the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office had sent a letter guaranteeing that the prosecution was just and that he would face no danger[3]. The Memorial Human Rights Centre has already recognised as political prisoners seven Ukrainians convicted on such ‘non-political’ charges, and will certainly do the same with respect to 15 other Ukrainians in Russian-occupied Crimea[4].

 

It sometimes seems that Interpol has also decided that ‘terrorism’ charges are not political, and need not be checked. It saw nothing untoward about Russia’s wish to prosecute Shakhban Isakov, a 41-year-old father of seven from Dagestan under Article 208 § 2 of the RF criminal code. This speaks of participation in an ‘armed formation in another country for purposes which run counter to the interests of the Russian Federation’[5].

 

Refat Chubarov has pointed out that he and fellow Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev were first banned from their homeland and then also charged with the same supposed activities ‘running counter to Russian interests’. Chubarov’s willingness to act as guarantor helped to secure Isakov’s original release from custody, however he was arrested again on April 2. This was supposedly on instruction from the Prosecutor General’s Office, though almost certainly instigated by the SBU. This was despite Isakov now also being an asylum seeker. Isakov was later released on an appeal and, thankfully, no one has actually been extradited. Such repeat arrests and reports of pressure on the men while in custody to ‘confess’ to various charges all point to inexplicable collusion between the security services.

 

Asylum seekers

How many people Ukraine really refuses asylum to is hard to know since the State Border Service tries not to let people planning to seek asylum, like the above-mentioned Amina Babaeva, into the country.  Those that do get in have a major hurdle with the State Migration Service which can simply refuse to accept a person’s application for refugee status. SBU claims that this has nothing to do with them are dismissed by human rights groups who point out that the border guards ask the SBU in any unclear cases, while the Migration Service needs an assessment from the SBU, with the latter seldom positive.

 

The difficulties are experienced by asylum seekers from any country, however the situation is particularly baffling in the case of an ever-increasing number of Russians who are fleeing persecution at home or who would face persecution because of their support for Ukraine.

 

During the first nine months of 2016, 316 people applied for asylum in Ukraine, with 54 of them from the Russian Federation[6]. Twelve people received asylum, five of them Russian citizens. On June 20, 2017, Natalya Naumenko from the Migration Service reported that 100 Russian citizens had applied for asylum in 2016. She went on to say that the number of political asylum seekers in 2017 from the RF had significantly increased. Neither during her briefing, nor in the statistics on the site as of the start of June 2017, were figures given for the numbers of Russian citizens granted asylum.

 

The Migration Service issued decisions regarding 484 asylum seekers in 2016. 20 received refugee status; 48 were recognised as in need of additional protection, while a staggering 416 applications were rejected [7]. These statistics do not include those whose application was simply not accepted.  While Naumenko listed the multiple reasons why Russians are seeking refuge in Ukraine, it is not at all uncommon for the Migration Service to claim that a person would not face any danger if returned to Russia, citing the Russian Constitution or empty assurances from the Russian Prosecutor General to back such a claim.

 

Human rights groups have expressed concern at the uncertainty and lack of protection of foreign nationals, mainly from Russia, who took part in Euromaidan or defended Ukraine in the conflict in Donbas. Clarification of the current situation, and likelihood of persecution, from UNHCR would be very helpful. This could be cited when Ukrainian officials deny the obvious danger that people who supported Maidan and Ukraine’s war effort, or who publicly opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea will face if forced to return to Russia. Plans were announced by President Petro Poroshenko on April 15, 2015, to simplify the procedure for Russians, especially those facing persecution at home, to receive Ukrainian citizenship[8].

 

Alexei Vetrov is one of the many who can confirm that Poroshenko’s plans have so far remained words. He was rejected at all stages of the asylum procedure despite considerable evidence of persecution in Russia, including brief jail terms for peaceful protests. The fact that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees had recognised him as a mandate refugee in need of international protection was of no interest to Ukraine’s Migration Service, who, Vetrov says, ‘does not believe it possible to distrust the Russian authorities’. If his documents say that he was prosecuted for ‘hooliganism’, then that is what they will believe.

 

Vetrov notes one important reason – namely that the same people who automatically turned down applications during the regime of Viktor Yanukovych (and before) remain in their posts and are continuing the same practice now.

 

It is not all hopeless. Two Kuban civic activists Pyotr Lyubchenkov and Viacheslav Martynov who fled to Ukraine after a third activist Darya Polyudova was arrested have finally both received refugee status. The three had planned a peaceful march in support of more say in the running of their region. Polyudova remains imprisoned to this day and all three were placed on Russia’s Federal List of Terrorists and Extremists[9], yet the Migration Service for a long time tried to claim that the men had nothing to fear back in Russia.

 

One cheering thing is that Ukrainian courts often overturn the decisions taken by the Migration Service, although the latter seems to always come back for more. One of the worst examples must be around the battle for asylum waged by 45-year-old Sergei Anisiforov who was active in Euromaidan from the beginning. There seems no adequate reason for the Odesa Migration Service’s stubbornness. Anisiforov had once served two prison sentences, but had then become a fairly prominent actor in Russian television serials. This meant that his open support for Maidan and later public criticism of Russia’s invasion of Crimea were noticed back in Russia, and he has frequently received threats.

 

He first applied for refugee status in July 2014, with the Migration Service initially refusing to even accept his application. He began lodging appeals and won them all, though each time the Migration Service challenged the ruling.

 

The arguments they presented were extraordinary. They refused to accept that he was in danger in Russia, since the latter is allegedly a democratic country. In August 2015, for example, a migration official claimed that the case of Crimean filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko was not relevant since they were members of Right Sector, a Ukrainian nationalist organisation banned in Russia, while Anisiforov did not belong to any such group. Sentsov and Kolchenko did not belong to Right Sector either, but neither that, nor the lack of any evidence against them, stopped a Russian court from sentencing them to 20 and 10 year sentences respectively. Two Ukrainians – Oleksandr Kostenko and Andriy Kolomiyets – are currently imprisoned illegally in Russia for allegedly throwing a stone (in Kostenko’s case) or a Molotov cocktail (Kolomiyets) at Ukrainian Berkut riot police officers in Kyiv during Euromaidan. Even had these actions been recorded at the time or been provable in any other way, Russia still could have no jurisdiction to prosecute for them. Anisiforov would be in direct danger of prosecution if forcibly returned to Russia, and almost certainly of physical reprisals.

 

On February 22, 2017 a court gave the Migration Service one month to provide all documents to the SBU for Anisiforov’s refugee status. Typically, they took over three months, but on June 14, 2014, almost three years after his initial application, Anisiforov was finally granted asylum.

 

It is certainly true that the Migration Service and SBU remain largely untouched by reforms, but they are nonetheless located in a country which has been ravaged by Russian aggression. There are currently 44 Ukrainians held illegally in Russia and Russian-occupied Crimea, with those already convicted having had trials that were a travesty of justice[10].

 

The SBU and Migration Service often ignore not only compelling grounds for not sending a Russian back to face danger, but also Ukraine’s own interest. Vladimir Radyuk can provide vital testimony regarding Russia’s military engagement in Donbas which he was originally forced to take part in. He surrendered to the Ukrainian authorities and served a sentence for that involvement. While in prison, the SBU put huge pressure on him to agree to be part of an exchange to get Ukrainian hostages released. Following publicity about his case, Russia came up with an extradition request, which Ukraine’s authorities have chosen to accept at face value, while rejecting his asylum application. Radyuk faces real danger if forcibly returned to Russia.

 

As mentioned, the SBU does not balk at arresting people to claim a Russian link where there is none.  Three Russians: Anastasia Leonova, Olga Sheveleva and Pavel Pyatakov were taken into custody in December 2015 accused of taking part in an FSB plot. The justification for holding them in custody was that they could supposedly flee to Russia, although each would have been in danger in Russia for their support of Ukraine. There are strong grounds for believing that a person whom all three knew, though in one case, only fleetingly, had been planning something illegal, and an arsenal of arms was found. Oleh Muzhchil was a Ukrainian nationalist who had become disillusioned with the post-Maidan government which he considered to be controlled by oligarchs. He was killed in a shootout, so could not be questioned about his motives, and the arrest of the three Russians enabled the SBU to claim that Russia was behind something illegal that probably had been planned by the dead man and one Ukrainian accomplice[11]. All three Russians were finally released, though the criminal proceedings aimed at backing the SBU’s implausible plot have yet to be terminated.

 

Recommendations

  • Safeguards are needed to protect the rights of asylum seekers at the Ukrainian border. There is a need for much greater accountability from the SBU, State Migration Service and Border Guard with respect to why people are prevented from entering the country or from lodging applications for asylum.
  • It would be helpful if Interpol could introduce more stringent checks on Red Notice applications from the Russian Federation, especially where these are for alleged ‘involvement in a terrorist organization’.
  • While updated reports from, for example, UNHCR on the current human rights situation in the Russian Federation (RF) would be helpful, Ukraine has more than enough evidence of its own citizens facing persecution in Russian-occupied Crimea and the RF. Political will and reforms are needed to ensure, in particular, that all Russian citizens who could face persecution at home for their support of Maidan, condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its undeclared war against Ukraine can feel certain that they will not be forcibly returned.

Given Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine and mounting human rights abuses in occupied Crimea, it is vital that the SBU spurn all forms of previous cooperation with their Russian counterparts.

[1] Vlada IV, SBU abducted and forcibly handed a Russian citizen over to Russia, volunteer says, September, 2016  http://vlada.io/news/sbu-vykrala-i-prinuditelno-otdala-rossii-grazhdanku-rf-volonter/;  Hromadske.ua, Ukrainian security service took Amina Babaeva on to Russian territory, friend says, September 2016, https://hromadske.ua/posts/ukrainski-spetssluzhby-vyvezly-aminu-babaievu-na-terytoriiu-rosii-podruha/; 15 Minutes, SBU hands over to Russia a woman who had fled persecution in the RF, human rights activists say,  September, 2016  https://www.15minut.org/news/163443-sbu-peredala-rossii-zhenschinu-kotoraya-bezhala-ot-presledovanij-v-rf-pravozaschitniki

[2] Memorial Human Rights Centre, Five men in Moscow received sentences of from 15 to 18 years on 16.06.2107, June 2017  https://memohrc.org/monitorings/po-ocherednomu-moskovskomu-delu-hizb-ut-tahrir-dali-sroki-ot-15-do-18-let; Halya Coynash:  Crimean Tatar Ruslan Zeytullaev gets 12-year sentence to meet Russian FSB quota, April 2017, http://khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1493205732

[3] Maria Tomak, May 2017,  https://www.facebook.com/maria.tomak/posts/1592122277488164

[4] In June 2016, Memorial HRC declared the first four Crimean Muslims accused of ‘involvement in a terrorist organization’ (how Russia describes Hizb ut-Tahrir) political prisoners, see Memorial HRC, Memorial HRC declares four defendants in a Hizb ut-Tahrir case from Sevastopol political prisoners, June 2016  https://memohrc.org/news/memorial-priznal-politzaklyuchennymi-chetveryh-obvinyaemyh-iz-sevastopolya-po-delu-hizb-ut. The reasons given apply equally to the other 15 men held in custody, it is just that Memorial normally waits until the trial has begun. Memorial also declared Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko political prisoners, and soon afterwards, Gennady Afanasyev, see Memorial HRC, The Memorial Human Rights Centre considers Oleg Sentsov, Oleksandr Kolchenko and Gennady Afanasyev political prisoners, October 2015,  https://memohrc.org/news/pravozashchitnyy-centr-memorial-schitaet-olega-sencova-aleksandra-kolchenko-i-gennadiya. They were also accused of a ‘terrorist plot’ solely on the basis of two confessions, one of which was retracted in court as given under torture. The case has aroused international condemnation.

[5] Isakov’s lawyer says that his client was first charged under the same article in 2003, with this over alleged involvement in an armed formation in Chechnya from 1995–2003. He was acquitted, but continued to receive threats of reprisals, and left Russia for Egypt where he was living until 2016, see Halya Coynash, Ukrainian Prosecutor’s strange attempt to help Russian FSB foiled, April 2017, http://khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1492132040

[6] Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union,  Human Rights in Ukraine 2016, December 2016,  https://helsinki.org.ua/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Prava-2016-povna-versiya.pdf

[7] Radio Svoboda, Migration Service, Over the last year 100 Russians have asked for asylum in Ukraine, June 2017  https://www.radiosvoboda.org/a/news/28567001.html; Migration Service: Statistics for  2016 http://dmsu.gov.ua/statistichni-dani/2945-statystyka

[8] Ukrainska Pravda, Poroshenko wants to make it easier for Russians to get citizenship, April 2015,  http://www.pravda.com.ua/rus/news/2015/04/15/7064819/?attempt=1

[9] Federal Financial Monitoring Service, List of Terrorists and Extremists http://www.fedsfm.ru/documents/terrorists-catalog-portal-add

[10] Halya Coynash, Ukraine moves to support political prisoners held in Crimea & Russia and their families, Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group,  May 2017, http://khpg.org/en/index.php?id=1495750719

[11] Vladimir Ivakhnenko, Nastya and Lesnyk, Radio Svoboda, January 2016  https://www.svoboda.org/a/27478139.html

Footnotes
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