VIENNA — Ukrainian forces have recently pushed Russian troops back across thousands of square miles in northeastern Ukraine, liberating dozens of towns and cities from Russian rule. But for millions of Ukrainians living in occupied Donetsk and Luhansk, the reality of life under Russian proxy rule is grim.
And for Ukrainians suspected of collaborating with Kyiv and trapped behind enemy lines, it’s even worse. In June, POLITICO reported on hundreds of local staffers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe monitoring mission who were working in eastern Ukraine to support the mission’s efforts in observing a fragile ceasefire. Many of them were left behind when foreign staff were evacuated in the war’s first days.
Now, two of these team members have been sentenced to more than a decade behind bars in sham trials by separatist courts in Luhansk.
On Monday, Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine sentenced OSCE mission members Dmitry Shabanov and Maxim Petrov to 13 years in prison for alleged treason. They are accused of having passed secret information to U.S. intelligence services, charges the OSCE vehemently denies.
The legal proceedings against Shabanov and Petrov were only launched last week by the so-called “Supreme Court” of the unrecognized Luhansk “people’s republic” in eastern Ukraine. The court proceedings were held entirely behind closed doors.
OSCE chairman-in-office, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, and OSCE Secretary General Helga Maria Schmid “unequivocally condemned” the sentencing in a joint statement.
“Our colleagues remain OSCE staff members and had been performing official duties as mandated by all 57 participating States,” Schmid said. “I call for their immediate and unconditional release, along with our other colleague who is also being detained.”
“Our Mission members have been held unjustifiably for more than five months in unknown conditions for nothing but pure political theatre. It is inhumane and repugnant,” Rau added.
For Yevhenii Tsymbaliuk, Ukraine’s ambassador to the OSCE, it was no longer a moment for diplomatic words. Russia is “terrorizing” the OSCE by “illegally detaining three local OSCE staff members” he told the OSCE Permanent Council on Thursday, the weekly meeting of OSCE ambassadors in Vienna.
Shabanov served as a security assistant in the Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, the OSCE’s flagship operation in eastern Ukraine. In a 15-second video shared by the Luhansk separatist authorities last week, Shabanov is seen in handcuffs, his head bowed, being dragged into what is supposed to be a courtroom.
Petrov, who worked for the OSCE as an interpreter, was also seen sitting in a cage, dressed in a black jacket with a blank stare on his face.
The Vienna-based OSCE, the world’s largest security body, is concerned about their well-being for good reason.
The U.N. has documented arbitrary detentions and enforced disappearances of more than 400 people, including former public officials, journalists and human rights activists in the territories controlled by Russia and its proxies since the start of the war. Anyone who is perceived as having ties to Ukrainian institutions or who is considered to be holding anti-Russian views is at risk.
The U.N. has also corroborated numerous accounts of torture and of forced confessions — accounts that paint a dark picture of a total lack of rule of law or fair legal proceedings.
Many of the victims are also transferred to the territory of the Russian Federation — a process that has become known as filtration — where they are held in penal colonies, often in horrific conditions.
Until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the OSCE oversaw a Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) of 689 unarmed, international civilian monitors and 478 Ukrainian staff members who were stationed mostly in eastern Ukraine to observe a fragile ceasefire. The mission was first deployed to Ukraine on March 21, 2014, following a request from Ukraine and a consensus decision by all 57 OSCE participating states, including Russia.
But when Russian tanks rolled across the Ukrainian border and missiles came raining down on Feb. 24, the OSCE decided to evacuate its international mission members for security reasons.
Some of the Ukrainian staffers — who typically held posts such as translators, administrative assistants, security advisers and drivers — were given the possibility to join evacuation convoys or to relocate within the country.
In the ensuing panic and chaos, and given the OSCE’s lack of a detailed plan to react to a full-scale Russian invasion, the majority of national staffers could not flee, which led to disastrous consequences for some of them, as POLITICO investigated.
Shabanov had initially made plans to join an OSCE evacuation convoy of international mission members, but the day before the evacuation, he decided to remain in Luhansk, according to a former colleague.
During a meeting between Western diplomats and the former Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission Yaşar Halit Çevik that took place in the days prior to the Russian invasion, it became apparent that the leadership of the OSCE mission did not take the threat seriously enough, according to people familiar with the matter. This led a number of Western nations, including the U.S., the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, to unilaterally evacuate their nationals from the OSCE mission in Ukraine.
Another OSCE mission member, Vadim Holda, who has been held in Russia-controlled Donetsk since April, and who worked as a security adviser for the OSCE mission, has been charged with espionage. Legal proceedings have not yet been launched.
“The continued detention of our Mission members and the so-called ‘legal proceedings’ against them are completely unacceptable. They are held unjustifiably on fabricated charges,” Polish foreign minister Rau said.
Meanwhile, the OSCE continues to try to secure the release of the three mission members.
“The OSCE remains in close contact with relevant stakeholders, including other international organizations, to facilitate the release of detained SMM staff,” the OSCE said in a statement. The organization also says that it will continue to “take steps to pursue all available channels to secure the privileges and immunities of current and former OSCE officials.”
The OSCE declined to comment further due to the sensitivity of the situation.
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