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Ukrainian forces track down, arrest citizens for pro-Russian views online

A Ukrainian soldier (Ministry of Defense of Ukraine/Wikimedia Commons)
May 02, 2022

Ukrainian security forces tracked down and arrested citizens under new anti-collaboration laws that criminalize the public denying Russian aggression in Ukraine or voicing support for the Russian side.

Over the weekend, the Associated Press reported Ukraine’s SBU security service had arrested hundreds of alleged violators of these new anti-collaboration laws, including about 400 people in the Kharkiv region alone. The Associated Press described the arrest of one individual, identified only as Viktor. Ukrainian security services officials reportedly found social media posts Viktor made in which he praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for “fighting with the Nazis.”

Putin has repeatedly claimed the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a “special military operation” to “denazify” the country. At least one paramilitary group fighting in defense of Ukraine, known as the Azov Battalion, has been accused of holding neo-Nazi views.

Viktor also reportedly called for regions in Ukraine to secede and labeled the national flag “a symbol of death.”

“Yes, I supported (the Russian invasion of Ukraine) a lot. I’m sorry. … I have already changed my mind,” Viktor reportedly said during his arrest. A Ukrainian SBU officer then reportedly told Viktor to gather his things and get dressed.

Under the Ukrainian anti-collaboration laws offenders could face up to 15 years in prison for helping Russian forces, including by voicing their support for Russia or denying Russian aggression in Ukraine. Any collaborators whose actions are deemed to have resulted in deaths could face life in prison, according to the Associated Press.

“Accountability for collaboration is inevitable, and whether it will happen tomorrow or the day after tomorrow is another question,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said of the anti-collaboration laws. “The most important thing is that justice will be served inevitably.”

Zelenskyy reportedly holds broad support among the Ukrainian population, but not all Ukrainians support him and some even condone Russia’s ongoing invasion. Support for the Russian side is generally more common in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where the pro-Russian separatist areas of Luhansk and Donetsk are located. Ukrainian forces had been skirmishing with the pro-Russian separatists in the east since 2014, nearly eight years before Russian began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. About 14,000 people had died in the fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists between 2014 and the start of the Russian invasion in February.

Some Ukrainian businessmen, civic and state officials and members of the military are among those who have aligned with the Russian side. Around April 1, Newsweek reported Zelenskyy had fired two Ukrainian generals, Naumov Andriy Olehovych and Kryvoruchko Serhiy Oleksandrovych. Zelenskyy accused the two generals of being “traitors” to Ukraine.

In Kharkiv, the Associated Press reported the Ukrainian SBU has been detaining people who support the invasion, call for secession or claim that Ukrainian side has hit their own cities with artillery and airstrikes.

“One of our key goals is to have no one stab our armed forces in the back,” Roman Dudin, the head of the SBU’s Kharkiv branch, told the Associated Press.

Volodymyr Yavorskyy, a coordinator for Ukraine’s Center for Civil Liberties, told the Associated Press that Ukrainian authorities are “using the practice of Western countries, in particular the U.K., which imposed harsh restrictions on civic liberties in warring Northern Ireland.” Yavorskyy said some of the practices used by the U.K. were ultimately deemed unjustified but others “were justified, when people’s lives were in danger.”

Yavorskyy said its hard to track how many people the Ukrainian SBU have detained because those arrests are classified and, under Ukrainian martial law, authorities can detain people for up to 30 days without a court order.

“In effect, these people disappear, and for 30 days there’s no access to them,” Yavorskyy said. “In reality, (law enforcement) has powers to take anyone.”

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the Associated Press “the debate about the balance of national security and ensuring freedom of speech is endless.”

Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights office, told the Associated Press that some of the arrests by Ukrainian authorities “may involve elements of human rights violations.” She said her office is probing eight cases that “appear to be disappearances of people considered as ‘pro-Russian,'” and two cases of “unlawful killings of ‘pro-Russians.’” Shamdasani said the office is also looking into instances of possible vigilantism by Ukrainian law enforcement against suspected Russian sympathizers.

Those potential human rights violations come as Ukrainian, U.S. and other western officials have accused the Russian side of numerous war crimes, including unlawfully killing hundreds of civilians during the invasion.

In March, Zelenskyy also banned eleven Ukrainian political parties he accused of holding ties to the Russian government. Those parties included the Opposition Party — For Life, Shariy Party, Nashi, Opposition Bloc, Left Opposition, Union of Left Forces, State, Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine, Socialist Party of Ukraine, Socialists Party and Volodymyr Saldo.