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Oleg Sentsov during his trial in Rostov-on-Don, August 25, 2015

Rumors fly about the exchange of high-profile political prisoners between Russia and Ukraine (story updated)

Source: Meduza
Oleg Sentsov during his trial in Rostov-on-Don, August 25, 2015
Oleg Sentsov during his trial in Rostov-on-Don, August 25, 2015
Sergey Pivovarov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA
Attention! Based on claims by Ukrainian state officials, Meduza initially reported that the prisoner exchange began on August 30, and that Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov had been freed. This information proved to be inaccurate. Meduza apologizes for the mistake.

On the night of August 30, false information circulated that a hotly anticipated prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia was underway. In a Facebook post that was later reshared by Ruslan Riaboshapka (Ukraine’s new prosecutor general), Verkhovna Rada staff member Anna Islamova said, “The exchange is complete: the sailors, Sentsov, [Mykola] Karpyuk, [Volodymyr] Balukh, and [Pavlo] Hryb are flying home.” The relatives of one of the captured Ukrainian sailors also informed the news outlet Krym.Realii that the prisoner exchange had begun. On his Telegram channel, Ekho Moskvy editor-in-chief Alexey Venediktov said the plane carrying these former prisoners was scheduled to land at Kyiv's Zhuliany Airport around 5 a.m. on August 30.

The Zelensky administration later denied reports about a completed prisoner trade. “The process of a prisoner exchange is ongoing. Information about its completion is inaccurate. This is not the first time we have seen information chaos caused by links to unverified information and numerous ‘sources.’ We urge you to understand the consequences of misinformation: it plays with society's emotions. When the prisoner exchange is completed, the Office of the President will announce it through official channels,” Ukraine's president said in a statement on Friday.

Valentin Rybin, the Ukrainian attorney defending a dozen Russian prisoners charged with fighting against the Ukrainian military in the Donbas and committing treason against the Ukrainian state, told the Russian news agency TASS that his clients are still in a detention center. He claims that the prisoner exchange will occur on September 3. Another source told Interfax that the necessary paperwork hasn't been finished yet.

Plans for a large-scale prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine were first reported roughly 10 days ago. Journalists started writing about the supposed initiative after five Ukrainian citizens serving prison sentences in Russia were suddenly transferred to Moscow’s “Lefortovo” detention center. Moscow and Kyiv have officially confirmed that they are in negotiations to trade prisoners, but neither side has indicated these talks’ progress. According to the newspaper Kommersant, the exchange was expected to take place in late August.

Moscow and Kyiv are each expected to exchange either 33 or 35 prisoners. Sources told Kommersant that Moscow would hand over the Ukrainian sailors captured at the Kerch Strait in November 2018, and Kyiv would release the dozen Russian prisoners represented by attorney Valentin Rybin who are charged with fighting against the Ukrainian military in the Donbas and committing treason against the Ukrainian state.

Moscow is expected to hand over Oleg Sentsov, Ukraine's most prominent political prisoner in Russia. Critics say Sentsov was convicted in a politicized trial, and cultural figures in Russia, Ukraine, and the West have advocated his release. Despite this support, the Kremlin has repeatedly refused even to entertain the idea of freeing Sentsov. In 2018, the imprisoned filmmaker carried on a hunger strike for 145 days, demanding that Russia release all its Ukrainian political prisoners. (Sentsov excluded himself from this list.) Not long after he ended his hunger strike, the European Parliament awarded Sentsov the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which honors individuals and groups of people who have dedicated their lives to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought.

Initially, Oleg Sentsov wasn’t on the prisoner-exchange list, according to Kommersant’s sources. On the morning of August 29, however, there were reports that Sentsov has been transferred from his prison cell in Labytnangi (a town in Russia’s Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug) to one of Moscow’s detention centers. A day earlier, Kirill Vyshinsky, the jailed editor-in-chief of RIA Novosti— Ukraine, who was released on his own recognizance by a court in Kyiv.

Text by Olga Korelina and Alexander Baklanov

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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