In Ukraine, they recall the six-year-old events. Then, in the centre of Kiev, armed clashes between protesters and security forces began. The confrontation escalated into riots, which led to human casualties. One of the consequences of those events was the armed conflict in Donbass. It is still not possible to settle the conflict. The issue of the exchange of prisoners remains acute. Those released from Ukrainian prisons do not always manage to return to a normal life.
A dorm room, a small pension and an almost hopeless dream to return home. Elena Petruk from Kharkov now lives in Donetsk. In Ukraine, she is under criminal prosecution for political reasons. For five years, the woman has not seen her relatives and friends.
Elena Petruk: “If I decide to return to Kharkov, they will put me in jail. I won’t pass the first checkpoint; they will arrest me immediately.”
In 2014, after a coup in Kiev, unrest spread on several Ukrainian cities at once. Thousands of people took to the streets of Kharkov. Elena Petruk was among the activists who spoke out in defence of the Russian-speaking population. In April 2015, the woman was detained by the SBU.
Elena Petruk: “They hit me right in the face, put a bag on my head, handcuffed and put me on the ground, where I laid for about 15 minutes.”
She was immediately offered to give false testimonies against one of the protesters. Elena Petruk: “I did not want to sign it, they were beating me for a long time there. “I’ve spent eight months in the basement of the SBU, where I experienced tortures; my leg was shot and my fingers were broken.” Elena has spent almost 3 years behind bars. All this time negotiations were going on between Kiev and the Republics. As a result, people detained in Ukraine for political reasons were transferred to the DPR as part of an exchange of prisoners.
In December 2017, buses with prisoners came to the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Elena Petruk was in one of them. She was getting closer to freedom though farther from home. The euphoria of the first large-scale exchange was soon darkened as many realised: Ukraine still considers them criminals.
Daria Morozova, the Human Rights Ombudsman in the Donetsk People’s Republic: “People do not have the right to leave the territory of the DPR, because they are wanted, they cannot travel to the EU countries, because the names of some of them are in the Interpol list. According to the Minsk agreements, people should be absolutely clear of charges, that is, they should be free.”
Her bill of indictment contains hundreds of pages. It does not say a word about how in 2014 Elena and her comrades evacuated people to Kharkov from the battle zone and collected humanitarian aid for the Donbass.
Elena Petruk: “We evacuated pregnant women, mothers with children, the elderly and disabled people. They just make me a terrorist here, saying that I have organised seven explosions in Kharkov, seven terrorist attacks, and I am a malicious terrorist.”
It might be even more difficult to close fabricated criminal cases than agree on an exchange of prisoners.