Mark Feygin, public defender for Roman Sushchenko
The tactics of negotiations on the release of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia should be fundamentally changed
11.02.2019 11:53

On February 8, our colleague, Ukrinform correspondent Roman Sushchenko, illegally imprisoned in Russia, marked his 50th birthday. Mark Feygin managed to visit Roman on that day to pass our greetings to him.

Of course, it is important for us to get any firsthand information about our colleague. Significant, touching details - the names of the newspapers he subscribed to; paintbrushes and paint transferred to the prison cell so that Roman could draw; boiled water now available for him. You ponder involuntarily how it all differs from ordinary life, from how jubilee birthdays are marked at large. But it was necessary to fight even for each of these items. It's enough to recall that at first Feygin was not allowed to see his client...

Therefore, the main wish for the birthday is that Sushchenko be released. And here is important the advice of lawyer and politician Feygin about how to change the strategy and tactics of negotiations with the Kremlin in the current conditions.

Mark Feygin: I visited Roman Sushchenko today, on his 50th birthday [on February 8]. This time, I had no problems visiting him. First, I went to the head of the colony, [Colonel Viktor] Masalitin. It was him who signed documents. Having learned from me about the birthday of the prisoner, he said he would come to congratulate him.

Ukrinform: After Sushchenko's prison transfer to the Kirov region, we talked a lot about his living conditions in the penal colony. How are they now?

MF: They improved and stabilized. It's cold now in Kirov – minus 15 degrees Celsius, strong winds. At the same time, Roman is in a warm, dry and "safe" room. This, as I have already said, is no longer a dormitory where, in the opinion of the administration of the penal colony, Sushchenko might be in danger of something, but PKT - a "cell-type room."

U: Yes, I remember that. According to the regime, there are no sockets there so there is also no boiling water received by prisoners. Has this problem been resolved?

MF: Yes, now there's a socket in the corridor. That is, there is boiling water but just behind the cell's door. Therefore, Roman, at his request, will get boiling water from prison staff. The situation with the delivery of letters has improved, there are no such delays as before. Roman can make phone calls. He has recently phoned his family, his mother, me. [...] Sushchenko is regularly visited by his relatives and officials. In general, I want to say that such a personal, "live" communication in the present conditions means a lot to Roman. He is waiting for each such arrival, it is a great event for him.

U: How else can Sushchenko learn about what's happening in the world?

MF: He subscribed to Russian newspapers made available in the colony. As far as I know, these are Novaya Gazeta and Kommersant. As for important news, Roman received paint and paintbrushes. So he can now do his favorite thing now – he can paint. He can even do something for the needs of the colony - some posters for holidays. Of course, not ideological, but family holidays, such as Christmas, New Year, International Women's Day. I consider this to be definitely positive. A person draws, rather than works in a logging area or sews mittens. [...] Here, by the way, I want to mention one of my long-standing suggestions made even in those times when I was working in the Pussy Riot case. Then I said that it would be correct if, under the current Russian conditions, there were penal colonies for political prisoners as it was in the Soviet era - in Perm, Mordovia. My words were then met with hostility. But see what's happening right now. The situation of those convicted under respective articles would be much better if they could serve their terms with the same people like them.

U: How did Roman celebrate his birthday?

MF: There's nothing to say here – 50th birthday in prison is 50th birthday in prison. Of course, with all the importance of domestic issues (I believe that at the time of the adoption of a political decision on release it is the most important thing), it is difficult to celebrate your birthday in a penal colony where there are so many limitations. [...] Of course, I initially passed greetings to Roman from his colleagues, from close people. I told him that his art exhibitions would soon open in Warsaw and Paris. He was very happy to hear all this. And he asked me to convey the words of gratitude to everyone who is not indifferent [about his fate]. [...] We also discussed some legal issues, including the consideration of his case in the European Court of Human Rights.

U: You have already mentioned the subject of a political decision in the cases of Ukrainian political prisoners, including Sushchenko. Let's discuss it in more detail. What are the prospects for this issue today?

MF: They are complex, they are very complex. The situation has changed a lot, therefore, in my opinion, it is necessary to fundamentally change the work on the release of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia.

U: How has the situation changed?

MF: Let's analyze what happened over the past year. The number of Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia has increased by a third, or even by one-and-a-half times. And that's just the number that we know. I assure you that in some cases, Russian law enforcement authorities manage to get the defendants to an agreement with the investigation, and then they are hiding everything so as to prevent the disclosure of information. Take a look at the story of Ukrainian sailors who are prisoners of war. By the way, this case is very indicative. What the Russian side is doing does not fit into any framework at all. This is absolutely contrary to international law. The Russian leadership has no reflection on this issue. Moscow fundamentally ceases to pay attention to its image, to the question of the humanitarian bloc. The Kremlin, almost without masking itself, makes it clear that its similar actions are, in fact, only a form of politics, and compliance with certain legal formalities is not essential.

U: So what do you think should be done under new conditions?

MF: It is necessary to change the tactics of negotiations. Appealing to the international image of Russia, humanitarian issues ceases to be effective. Therefore, the parties that are negotiating with the Kremlin, too, need to reflect less and put questions more clearly. It is necessary, using intermediaries, openly, persistently, directly, to offer options for a swap.

U: Yes, but who, for example, could now become such an intermediary?

MF: It's only Donald Trump in this situation, at this particular moment. He is accused of ties with the Russians. Because of the desire to prove the opposite and for the sake of a narcissistic self-admiration, he can solve such problems – those of Ukrainian sailors and Sushchenko. [...] In fact, Soviet dissidents were also freed by Carter and Reagan. There is nothing new here, the logic here is historical. The problem of Ukrainian political prisoners is a problem of not bilateral relations between Russia and Ukraine, but quite a global problem.

U: What else is needed as part of a new tactics and strategy?

MF: Ukraine and its international partners need to carefully consider what options they have to put pressure on Moscow so that it agrees to a prisoner swap. International mechanisms of pressure can be diverse, beginning with, of course, sanctions and opportunities for their expansion. As for Ukraine itself, here, if you will, I will put a rhetorical question. There has recently been a news story that criminal proceedings were opened in Ukraine on the counts of high treason and separatism against Viktor Medvedchuk, who is called "Putin's kum" [the Russian president is the godfather to Medvedchuk's daughter]. So, can the Medvedchuk case be one of the elements of pressure on the Kremlin? I repeat, the question is rhetorical. You don't have to answer.

U: You talked about how, under conditions of imprisonment, Suschenko is waiting for a meeting with acquaintances. Can you specify who will be next to visit him?

MF: As far as I know, Ukraine's consul in Moscow Albert Cherniyuk is expected to come to Sushchenko in Kirovo-Chepetsk in the second half of February.

Oleg Kudrin, Riga

Photo credit: Olena Khudiakova

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