Political Prisoner Pavel Volkov: Hundreds of Innocent People Are in Prison in Ukraine Because of Politics

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard



The Zaporozhye journalist Pavel Volkov, who was arrested according to a pretext that was invented by the Ukrainian law enforcement bodies, spent 13 months behind bars and unexpectedly, still being under investigation, was released from prison. The Ukrainian political prisoner described to “ukraina.ru” what happened to him and what will happen next.

On October 25, 2018 the journalist from Zaporozhye Pavel Volkov, who stayed behind bars for 13 months, was released by the court without a measure of restraint.

Pavel, describe please your feelings during the first days of freedom. Did you believe in such a possibility, especially in the context of the systematic extension of the sanction by the court for your arrest?

“Being in a pre-trial detention center, I imagined many times the day of release, I lived it in my thoughts, like a certain return of Odysseus to his native Ithaca after a long-long absence. And there was indeed a lot of joy, but there was such a feeling as if only yesterday I went somewhere and already returned back. As if Groundhog Day finished (we recently rewatched this movie in prison, comparing it to our lives), although in reality all my family was robbed of a year of life.

Astonishingly, you have no time to leave the doorway and every day you meet friends, acquaintances, and neighbours who sincerely congratulate you, embrace you, cry with happiness. There is nobody who would doubt the absurdity of the charges brought to me and who wouldn’t be outraged because I was kept in prison for so long.

I expected from the very first day of my arrest that I would be imminently released – so absurd the accusation and the situation as a whole was. However, the measure of restraint was prolonged and prolonged. That’s why although logically all of us also understood that this time after my lawyer Svetlana Novitskaya achieved the court’s recognition of 80% of the evidence as inadmissible and the chances of the measure of restraint being changed to house arrest was very great, we were afraid to put belief in it. We had belief, of course, but … Generally, the stars aligned in such a way that our enemy betrayed us. The prosecutor simply abused his rights and the patience of the court, and the motion of the lawyer was so competent and convincing that the court, having used the norms of  European and international law, in general left me without a measure of restraint. As far as I know, such a thing hasn’t happened in recent years concerning political cases.”

How did your arrest happen and what was the essence of the charges brought to you?

“A firm known by everyone (the SBU) worked, to put it mildly, basely. My case, as I later learned, has been open since February, 2017, but they waited for the moment when there was grief in the family — my wife was obliged to go to her grandmother’s funeral in Siberia — and only then did they come for me. Imagine how she felt when she heard such news being thousands of kilometers away from me. If she had been at home it would’ve been a little bit more difficult for them to carry out a search, since she is registered at this apartment but I am not, and they wouldn’t be able to rummage through several rooms at the same time without being supervised.

So, the employees of the SBU threw me to the floor and then presented the search warrant – I, naturally, at that moment didn’t and couldn’t understand anything written on it. It was only later that the lawyer found out that, according to the articles [of the Criminal Code – ed] that were presented to me during the investigation, no permission had been given for a search and no permission had been given to arrest the computer equipment that had been confiscated from me.

As a result I was accused of calling to change the borders of Ukraine whilst conspiring with an unspecified group of people in an unspecified place. At the same time, they referred to an article of the Constitution that speaks about the administrative borders of regions, and not at all about the state border. Well, and in order to make the charges heavier, the article about assisting a terrorist organisation was added to me, although under the law assistance means specifically 3 things: recruitment, weapons, and financing. Of course, there is nothing about this in the indictment, but this article is mentioned. It turns out that I am ‘guilty because they want to eat me!’ [a reference to Krylov’s ‘Wolf and Lamb’ – ed].”

The Ukrainian media wrote that you returned from Russia where certain curators transferred money to you for the purpose of financing a referendum in Zaporozhye.

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“The majority of Ukrainian media outlets, and especially local ones in Zaporozhye, are senseless and ruthless and worked for the creation of the necessary picture to justify my arrest. The carbon copies that the Zaporozhye Internet websites were writing on the first day of my arrest aren’t even present in the indictment. So from where did they take this information, and who benefits from spreading it?

Well, what referendum can there be in Zaporozhye? But if to be serious, there is a need to file lawsuits for that shameless slander that was poured on me for a year by certain media outlets, and it is quite possible that I will do this a little bit later. Imagine, one local ‘analyst’ even wrote that I used ‘Russian money’ to bribe employees of the SBU, thanks to which the case collapsed.

And why does everyone know about this money except me? In reality I spent the summer with my wife, as usual – not for the first year, in Siberia, looking after her elderly grandmother. Unfortunately, she died two weeks after we returned to Zaporozhye. You know the rest.”

Characterise, please, the work of the investigation and the prosecutor’s office. Were measures of physical or psychological influence used against you? Were any proposals made to admit your guilt?

“Thank God, no physical methods were used to influence me. As for the rest, during the search I was harassed concerning some DPR ID card. Moreover, they promised to release me if I gave it to them, and if I didn’t they threatened to turn the entire apartment upside down. I was so dumbfounded that I even searched a little with them for this mysterious ID card.

Of course, what doesn’t exist in nature wasn’t found. So then SBU employees really picked the apartment to pieces and broke many things.

And the fact of me being illegally put in a pre-trial detention center was indeed psychological influence. Besides this, during the first months I sat in an overcrowded cell, where we were obliged to sleep on rotation, and the window wasn’t glazed, and in cold weather we had to hang a blanket on it. By the end of the investigation I was proposed to admit my guilt in exchange for a suspended sentence, and after the case started collapsing in court the prosecutor started talking about an exchange, which also assumes a recognition of guilt.”

How difficult was the first days behind bars? How did your family cope with it?

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“I won’t hide it, it was very hard. And not just the first days. The main problem was even not so much the living conditions (although I didn’t immediately get used to a narrow closet with four walls) as it was socialisation.

Prison is in some sense a world turned inside out. Words that have an absolutely harmless meaning outside prison can be taken very seriously inside prison and it is necessary to be held accountable for them. The word is an act. Plus very specific people. Although, to tell the truth, among prisoners there sometimes are many more decent people than there are among free people. Such is our system – crooked and unfair. So I needed a long time to adapt. Perhaps, only in the last few months did I begin to feel rather calm.

But for my relatives it was a big blow. At that moment in Zaporozhye there was my mother and older brother, who from the first day did everything to pull me out from jail. My wife, as I already said, went to Siberia for a funeral. She learnt about the news on the journey. Of course, it was very difficult for her to endure at the same time both the death of her grandmother and her husband being arrested.”

What did you get up to in prison? Did you enter into any conflicts with other prisoners?

“Yes, I did everything that one is supposed to do in prison. ‘Keeping busy’, as it is called there. I read books, did sports during walks, I communicated with cellmates and, I’m ashamed to admit, I watched TV. At home I haven’t had a TV out of principle for many years, and here day and night it is a zombie apocalypse. I never thought that 90% of Ukrainian news is about Russia, and Putin is shown on ICTV [a Ukrainian TV channel – ed] nearly more often than he is on ‘Russia-24’.

Of course, there were conflicts with other prisoners, but it had no relation to my civil position. In prison you’re not judged for your way of life, only for acts. There it isn’t important whether you are white or red. There are those who are in cells and those who supervise them. And there is a need to build human relations with all — it is precisely this that welcomed. Although, of course, there are different people. So if life doesn’t pass without conflicts outside of prison, then inside prison – where there is a crowd of not simple adults, who around the clock day by day are all together in a closed space – it would be stupid to expect idyll. And nevertheless, people live and interact even in such conditions.”

Were any international organisations interested in your fate (the UN, OSCE, and others)? Was there any help from them?

“Not immediately. But considerable help started being given thanks to the vigorous activity of my relatives and friends. Representatives of the leadership of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, the Red Cross, OSCE, and the International Society for Human Rights repeatedly came to me both in the pre-trial detention center and in court. Ukrainian organisations, such as the Institute of Social Policy and Legal Protection of I. Berezhnaya and ‘Uspishna Varta‘ didn’t stand aside either. There is special thanks for the support of the human rights activist and journalist Oksana Chelysheva. She one of the first in Europe who started to write about my case.”

What are the future prospects for your case? Do you have a good chance of achieving a not guilty verdict, and do you intend to appeal to the European instances?

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“Court sessions have been appointed every day over two weeks from November 21st. I very much hope that this will be enough in order to finish consideration of the case. Although to make any forecast and to foresee what other machinations the investigation and prosecutor’s office will make is, of course, impossible. Especially since the case is now being considered from the very beginning.

But we believe in victory, because the truth is unambiguously on our side. Besides this, achieving justice even in one case is important also for other political prisoners. When I, being in a pre-trial detention center, learned that Vasily Muravitsky had been released under house arrest after spending 11 months in jail, I had a small celebration. I think that this is how it is for everyone who has been repressed for their views – the victory of one of us in some sense becomes a victory of all of us.”

Is it possible to speak about the existence of freedom of speech in post-Maidan Ukraine? Are you familiar with similar precedents of the criminal prosecution of journalists as, for example, Vasilets, Timonin, and Muravitsky?

“What freedom of speech can there be in a country where denunciations of neighbours for the purpose of depriving them of subsidies for utilities are welcomed? What freedom of speech can there be in a country where real prison terms are handed down for posts on social networks? Of course, I am familiar with the cases of Muravitsky, Vasilets, and Timonin, my lawyer Svetlana Novitskaya defended the interests of Timonin and Vasilets in court of first instance and submitted an appeal in their interests, and her motion concerning illegal detention in Vasilets’ interests was accepted for consideration in the ECHR, she communicates with Muravitsky’s lawyer Andrey Gozhy and with Vasily himself. Besides this, I am personally familiar with some political prisoners who the public either know almost nothing or know nothing in general about. And this is a big problem. After all, people write about those who have had the opportunity to come to the media and human rights activists. Hundreds of people under similar articles [of the Criminal Code – ed] sit in obscurity and with doubtful prospects for years simply because they aren’t spoken about. This should be corrected. For example, for two years in the Zaporozhye pre-trial detention center drivers who transported pensioners of the DPR across the ‘line of demarcation’ so that they could receive their pensions are sat in jail for assisting a terrorist organisation under article 258-3 of the Criminal Code. Nobody knows or writes anything about them in general.”

Let’s imagine that the case is closed in your favour. What are your future plans? Do you have the desire to return to journalism?

“Let’s not make a forecast, after all, it’s not at all the end. Nevertheless, it is just necessary to speak about the injustice that is happening around. Not everyone understands this, but in the modern world the word is often stronger than tanks and bombers. ‘The word is an act’. In conditions when you can be easily thrown in prison for something that was said or written, this should be remembered not only by prisoners, but also by free people. Who knows who they can come for tomorrow …”

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