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Interview with Ukrainian Journalist Jailed for Speaking out Against the War in Ukraine

The following interview with Ukrainian journalist Ruslan Kotsaba was published in Ukraina.ru on December 9, 2016. Translated from the Russian original by Halyna Mokrushyna for CounterPunch.

Translator introduction:

Ruslan Kotsaba is a Ukrainian journalist and a former political prisoner. He publicly opposed the military operation by the Ukrainian government against Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts (provinces) in eastern Ukraine which began in April 2014. He went to Donetsk and Lugansk (which comprise the historic region of Donbass) in the summer and fall of 2014 to interview local residents, following which his reporting dismissed the Ukrainian claim of Russian aggression taking place against Ukraine.

Kotsaba voiced sharp opposition to the beginning of conscription into the Ukrainian army that was imposed by then-‘acting’ president Oleksandr Turchynov on May 1, 2014. Compulsory military service was abolished in Ukraine only one year earlier by President Viktor Yanukovych, who was overthrow in the ‘Maidan’ coup of February 2014. Ukrainians have ‘voted with their feet‘ against the re-imposition of conscription through massive evasion when conscriptors come calling.

On January 17, 2015, Kotsaba published on YouTube a video recorded on his cell phone in his home city of Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine. In the video, he called upon President Petro Poroshenko to end what Kotsaba called a “fratricidal civil war” in Donbass. He declared he would tear up his own call-up papers and serve a term in jail rather than kill his compatriots in Donbass. He called upon other Ukrainian men receiving conscription notices to do the same.

Following a denunciation by a ‘vigilant’ citizen, Kotsaba was arrested in February 2015 by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and accused of high treason. At a trial on May 12, 2016, Ivano-Frankivsk city court acquitted him of this accusation but found him guilty of “obstructing operations of the Armed Forces of Ukraine”. He was sentenced to three years and six months in prison. On July 14, 2016 the Appeal Court of Ivano-Frankivsk region acquitted him and ordered his release from custody.

Recently, Ruslan Kotsaba and his lawyer Tetiana Montian spoke at the European Parliament about the current situation with freedom of speech and human rights in Ukraine. Correspondents of Ukraina.ru online media interviewed Kotsaba about his appearance in the European Parliament and about the general situation with human rights in Ukraine.

Ukraina.ru: Ruslan, recently you spoke at the European Parliament. Can you tell us what you talked about in that speech? How did the European Parliament react to it?

Ruslan Kotsaba: The response to my speech was an emotional outbreak. This is a good sign, because the position of the European Parliament determines many things. It is thanks to the European Parliament and to the European antiwar movements that I was acquitted by the court of appeal and released from prison. For me, it was important to bring out the truth that Ukraine is rapidly turning into a police state. It was important for me to convey the idea that the current Ukrainian government behaves so inadequately precisely because of the connivance of the European Union.

Kiev politicians are given a loan of 600 million Euros so that Ukraine exports unprocessed wood, ruining its economy and ecology, and in exchange, they take loans, which not only my children but my grandchildren will have to pay back. Politicians in the European Parliament listened to all of what I said very attentively. But I realized that they have long been aware of what is happening in Ukraine, except certain geopolitical interests do not allow them to force the Ukrainian government to a more appropriate policy. People are starting to laugh at Ukraine; Ukraine is becoming a source of irritation. In Europe, people believe that Ukrainians do not know themselves or what they want. Only negative messages are coming from Ukraine. After all, we (Ukrainians) are leaders in corruption and in other negative indicators – such as “social” diseases, infant mortality, street robbery, low wages, etc.

You communicate with Western human rights activists. What do they say now about the situation with human rights violations in Ukraine? And how do they intend to respond to this situation?

RK: European human rights defenders know about my problem. They also know about cases of others who were and are subjected to political persecution. They are aware of what is happening in Ukraine today, and why Ukraine is now called a police state. However, some of them have got the wrong idea about what is happening in Ukraine, believing that black patron wagons cruise the streets and pick up everybody, as if we were back in 1937. In fact, the SBU operates quite awkwardly and provides a disservice to the state.

You have already appealed to the European Court of Human Rights in order to obtain compensation for your illegal detention?

RK: My understanding is that my case is now being examined by the Supreme Court [of Ukraine]; my case has been reviewed in the third instance.[1] Only after this I can apply directly to the European Court of Human Rights.

The SBU and the Prosecutor General’s Office did not undertake new attempts to appeal your release?

RK: The prosecutor’s office referred the cassation appeal to the Supreme Court, but they have not yet set a review date. I wrote that I want to be present at the first examination. The judges obviously do not want to get their hands dirty with a political deal.

It is reported that you and your lawyer Tetiana Montian received threats from nationalists. Is this true?

RK: Our so-called “extreme right” – and I’m familiar with this environment – are to a large extent clownish organizations. However, now they are armed. They have a lot of illegal weapons and their members often suffer post-traumatic syndrome [from serving in the war in the east of the country]. Today, it is a problem not only for me but for the whole of Ukrainian society. Today, you can be shot just like that, on the street. Already it has reached the point that the police are shooting at the police.[2] And no one thought that in Kniazhychi, civilians could have been killed as well. I was surprised to learn that some of the dead were members of the volunteer battalions, [Ukrainian minister of the interior] Avakov’s friends on Facebook.

Have you spoken to the person who reported you to the SBU?

RK: I have not met with Taras Demyaniv, who wrote the report on the basis of which the SBU opened a criminal case on me. But after I win the case in the European courts and receive an acquittal, I will sue him for libel. Libel is punishable by three to four years in prison – but, of course, under the current regime nobody will put him in prison. Let me remind you: I posted my video on YouTube on the evening of January 17, 2015 and on January 18, before lunch, the SBU had already received the report from this Demianiv. On the same day, January 18, in the afternoon, the report was registered. On January 19, they started wiretapping my conversations. The SBU wanted to make hunting me down legal; they needed a pretext and my video became such a pretext.

Do you provide support to those who are persecuted in Ukraine for political reasons?

RK: I help everyone I can. Vasilets and Timonin, journalists of Channel 17 where I work, have been detained in Zhytomyr investigative isolation ward for over a year now. Hearings of their case are illegally held behind closed doors. According to Ukrainian law, court hearings can be made closed only in three instances: when hearings are about sexual offenses, about crimes committed against children, or about high treason. Of course, none of these legal circumstances is present in the case of Ukrainian journalists. They are accused based on political motives.  Possibly due to the intervention of the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe], the December 16 hearing on the cases of Vasiltsev and Timonin will be open to the public. I will be there to give them moral support and information – so that they remember that it is possible to possible to achieve liberation, like in my case. And I will write a report about the trial.

Why do you think Ukrainian media chooses to ignore the problem of Ukrainian political prisoners and secret prisons, which were reported recently in a UN report? [Weblink]

RK: This story has caused a major international scandal, but in Ukraine it was hushed up – because the whole information flow in the country is under control the Ministry of Information, headed by Yuri Stets, godfather of one of Poroshenko’s children. But while in Ukraine the scandalous situation where UN human rights observers were not allowed into the secret prisons earlier this year, and the story was hushed up, although with great difficulty, in Europe, people talk about it and the story has damaged Ukraine’s image. After all, by not allowing UN observers, Ukrainian authorities have confirmed that all the information about secret prisons is true.

Why is the Ukrainian government trying to equate calls for peace and social protest to pro-Russian propaganda?

RK: The Ukrainian government is using primitive propaganda, following the precepts of Goebbels whereby “The more monstrous the lie, the more likely people will believe it.” Instead of searching and reporting objective facts, journalists spread propaganda and old wives’ tales about the “hacked” Surkov correspondence.[3] I recently filmed a story in Genichesk [a city in Odessa region] about problems with natural gas supply [for home heating and cooking].  The SBU is now interrogating people with whom I spoke. Apparently, these people are also dangerous because if people want to live in heated houses and have gas in their stoves, they are ‘enemies of the people’. A new year 1937 is dawning on Ukraine, and the SBU is trying out the NKVD [Soviet secret police] format. I do not believe they will succeed, because the civilized world will prevent it and people will not allow it. Meanwhile, you can speak truth in Ukraine only in a prison cell or in online media, although the Ministry of information may soon sort that out, too.

Explanatory notes by Counterpunch:
[1] Under Ukraine’s new judicial laws, specialised cassation courts of third instance are abolished and transformed into autonomous chambers under the auspices of the new Supreme Court of Ukraine. Courts of cassation do not re-examine the facts of a case, they are only competent for verifying the interpretation of the law.

[2] In the early morning of December 4, 2016, five members from different state law enforcement agencies were shot dead in a shooting incident between police and the State Guard Service, a police force that protect property, in the village of Kniazhychi, in Kyiv region. In the opinion of many critics of the Kyiv regime, this armed clash revealed the dire state into which the Ukrainian police has been brought by hasty reforms of the law enforcement agencies by the post-Euromaidan Ukrainian authorities.

[3] Vladislav Surkov is Assistant to the President of the Russian Federation and reportedly oversees Russia’s official and non-official support of all kind to the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics.

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