Strangling Putin’s legal system could bring about his downfall

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

For the second time, the State of Qatar has negotiated the repatriation of Ukrainian children deported to Russia. The country has become the go-to mediator in hostage crises too, having played a key role in brokering a deal between Israel and Hamas. But can Qatar also succeed, where others have failed, to help return thousands of Ukrainian hostages imprisoned in Russia?

As the world watches horrors unfold in Gaza and Israel, the plight of Ukrainian imprisoned civilians like Mykyta Buzynov have fallen from view. In March 2022, Russian soldiers took the 25-year-old taxi driver from his uncle’s yard in the Chernihiv region. Witnesses said occupying forces searched his phone, accused him of being a traitor, threatened to shoot his girlfriend, then drove him away. Months later, his family discovered he had been held in a pretrial centre in the Russian city of Belgorod. Now his location is unknown.

Buzynov’s name is one among more than 4,000 documented by Ukraine’s Centre For Civil Liberties (CCL). That is further to Ukraine’s kidnapped children, which Kyiv estimates exceeds 19,000 young people.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning organisation is tracking cases of civilian imprisonment in Russia – men and women snatched off the streets without explanation. It estimates there are several thousand more.

Russians interrogate them, accuse them of false crimes and deny their rights to contact families. They imprison them without trial – some for almost two years. Those who are released report being tortured, sexually abused, and starved. The system is a macabre merry-go-round of human rights violations.

The world’s energetic reaction to the Middle East hostage crisis has revealed how weak headway on rescuing Ukrainian civilians has been, and increased an already profound frustration among human rights defenders.

They have levelled much of their anger at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Ukrainian government officials, in particular parliamentary commissioner for human rights Dmytro Lubinets, have accused the organisation of failing to fulfil its mandate.

The ICRC has defended its role and clarified it cannot act as a negotiator between states, but rather has a right to visit civilian internees to check their treatment and conditions follow international humanitarian law. It will not state how many Ukrainians in Russian captivity it has reached.

ICRC spokesman in Ukraine Achille Després told me discretion was imperative: “You cannot even think of visiting a place of detention anywhere if you start calling out the people who hold the keys.”

This month expectations in Ukraine were high about a meeting between ICRC president Mirjana Spoljaric and President Putin in Moscow. She last went in January. In September, Russian press published quotes from head of the ICRC Regional Delegation for Russia Boris Michel hinting at a visit. The ICRC declined to confirm or deny the trip. This week Spoljaric is in Gaza, with Israel to follow.

Mikhail Savva, a Russian human rights professor and advisor to the CCL, hoped Spoljaric would raise the prison access agenda. He has experienced Russian prisons directly, after being prosecuted for his human rights work in 2013. He now lives in exile in Ukraine, having fled Russia. But he says he was lucky. Under the current regime, escape is impossible.

Savva believes the ICRC should be bolder. He says since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin is seen as an anomaly. By treading carefully, the ICRC is helping him regain an image of conducting business-as-usual politics.

Qatar, however, does not have a demarcated mandate, and its approach as mediator in the cases of children seems to be working. Last month, Lubinets announced Qatar had agreed to mediate on returning civilian hostages. With its help, perhaps, there is hope for families in Ukraine desperately awaiting news of lost relatives.

But Western countries could also ramp up the pressure, says Savva. He has worked on several cases where direct appeals from Russian lawyers to Russian regional prosecutors, informing them they are holding a non-combatant illegally without charges, have surprisingly led to their release. “Some of them are afraid,” he suggests. “They know they are breaking Russian and international laws. They don’t know how long the current regime will last. When it falls, they will have to answer for the crimes they have committed.”

For this reason, Savva wants governments to sanction local prosecutors, and people running prisons and penal colonies, to paralyse the system.

And if that were to happen, he believes that Putin’s regime will fall.

Gabriella Jóźwiak is an award-winning freelance journalist working on issues and policies affecting children and young people.

You can listen to her interview earlier this year on our podcast ‘Ukraine: The Latest’ here.

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