Ukraine cracks down on ‘traitors’ aiding Russian troops | World

Viktor looked nervous as Ukrainian security agents, masked and in full riot gear, camouflage and weapons entered his cluttered apartment in the northern city of Kharkiv. His hands were shaking and he was trying to cover his face.

The middle-aged man came to the attention of Ukraine’s Security Service, SBU, for social media posts that officials said praised Russian President Vladimir Putin for “fighting the Nazis”, encouraged regions to separate and called the national flag “a symbol of death”.

Ukrainian security service officers on the stairs of a man accused of being a collaborationist on April 18, 2022 — Photo: Felipe Dana/AP

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“Yes, I was very supportive (the Russian invasion of Ukraine). I’m sorry. I’ve already changed my mind,” Viktor said, his shaky voice giving clear signs of duress in the presence of Ukrainian security agents.

“Get your things and get dressed,” a police officer said, before escorting him out of the apartment. The SBU did not reveal Viktor’s last name, citing the ongoing investigation.

Ukrainian security service officers at a building in the city of Kharkiv on April 18, 2022 — Photo: Felipe Dana/AP

Viktor was among approximately 400 people in the Kharkiv region alone who were detained under anti-collaboration laws swiftly passed by the Ukrainian parliament and signed into law by President Volodymyr Zelensky after the Russian invasion on February 24.

Searches for a man accused of collaborationism with Russia at a building in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on April 18, 2022 — Photo: Felipe Dana

Violators can be punished with up to 15 years in prison for collaborating with Russian forces, publicly denying Russian aggression or supporting Moscow. Anyone whose actions result in death could face life imprisonment.

“Responsibility for collaboration is inevitable, it remains to be seen whether it will happen tomorrow or the day after,” says Zelensky. “The most important thing is that justice will inevitably be done.”

Man suspected of being a collaborator of Russian forces arrested in Ukraine, on April 18, 2022 — Photo: Felipe Dana/AP

Although Zelensky’s government has broad support, even among many Russian speakers, not all Ukrainians oppose the invasion. Support for Moscow is more common among some Russian-speaking residents of the eastern industrial region of Donbass. A local conflict between Moscow-backed separatists and Ukrainian government forces has killed more than 14,000 people even before this year’s invasion.

Businessmen, military, civil and government officials are among those who have sided with Russia, and Ukraine’s State Investigations Department says that more than 200 criminal cases over collaboration have already been opened. Zelensky has even removed two SBU generals from their ranks, accused of treason.

A Ukrainian security service agent talks to a woman during a search in Kharkiv, April 18, 2022 — Photo: Felipe Dana/AP

One “registration of collaborators” is being gathered and will be released to the public, according to Oleksiy Danilov, head of the Security Council of Ukraine. He declined to say how many people were searched across the country.

Under martial law, authorities banned 11 pro-Russian political parties, including the largest, which had 25 seats out of 450 members of parliament. – the Opposition Platform for Life, founded by Viktor Medvedchuk, an imprisoned oligarch who has close ties to Putin.

A woman sees security officers in front of her apartment in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on April 18, 2022 — Photo: Felipe Dana/AP

Authorities say pro-Russian activists in southeastern Ukraine, the scene of active fighting, are acting as beacons for direct bombing.

“One of our main goals is that nobody stabs our armed forces in the back,” says Roman Dudin, head of the SBU’s Kharkiv office, in an interview given to The Associated Press news agency. He spoke with the AP in a dark basement where the SBU moved operations after its building in central Kharkiv was bombed.

A man is arrested on suspicion of being a collaborator with Russian forces in Ukraine, on April 18, 2022 – Photo: Felipe Dana/AP

The Kharkiv office has been arresting people who support the invasion, call for secession and accuse Ukrainian forces of bombing cities on their own.

Accusations of collaboration with the enemy carry a heavy historical burden in Ukraine. During World War II, some people in the region offered welcome and even cooperation to the invading forces of Nazi Germany, after years of Stalinist repression that included the “Holodomor” – a period of famine from artificial causes believed to have killed more than 3 million Ukrainians. After that, for many years the Soviet authorities claimed the cooperation of some Ukrainian nationalists with the Nazis as a reason to demonize Ukraine’s current democratically elected leadership.

Human rights defenders are aware of “dozens” of arrests of pro-Russian activists in Kiev alone since the new laws were passed, but how many were targeted across the country remains unclear, says Volodymyr Yavorskyy, coordinator of the Center for Freedoms. Civilians, one of the largest human rights groups in Ukraine.

A Ukrainian agent at a suspect’s building in the city of Kharkiv on April 18, 2022 — Photo: Felipe Dana/AP

“There is no complete data for the (whole) country, as everything is considered classified by the SBU,” Yavorskyy told the AP.

“Ukrainian authorities are actively employing the practices of Western countries, in particular the United Kingdom, which imposed severe restrictions on civil liberties during the war in Northern Ireland. Some of these restrictions were considered unjustified by human rights defenders, but others were justified, when lives were put at risk,” he explains.

A security officer during a search for a suspect in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on April 18, 2022 – Photo: Felipe Dana/AP

In Ukraine, a person can be detained for up to 30 days without a warrant, he says, and anti-terrorism legislation under martial law allows authorities not to inform defense lawyers about their clients’ pretrial detention.

“These people actually disappear, and for 30 days you don’t have access to them,” says Yavorskky. “In reality, (the police) have the power to take anyone.”

The government knows the implications of jailing people for their opinions, including the risk of supporting Moscow’s accusation that Kiev is cracking down on Russian speakers. But in times of war, officials say, freedom of expression is only part of the problem.

A man is detained in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on April 18, 2022 — Photo: Felipe Dana/AP

“The debate on the balance between national security and guaranteeing freedom of expression is endless,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told the AP.

Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the UN human rights office, said her agency had documented “cases of arrests and detentions allegedly carried out by Ukrainian police authorities, which may involve elements of human rights violations” and that it was following up with the Ukrainian government. .

She said the agency is reviewing eight cases that “appear to be disappearances of persons deemed ‘pro-Russian’, and we have documented two cases of unlawful executions of ‘pro-Russia’ persons”, along with cases of justice, in which police or others punish those suspected of being pro-Russia.

A Ukrainian security service officer in Kharkiv on April 18, 2022 — Photo: Felipe Dana/AP

In the city of Bucha, now a symbol of the terrible violence of the war, Mayor Anatoly Fedoruk said collaborators informed the invading troops of the names and addresses of pro-Ukrainian activists and officials in the city outside Kiev, where hundreds of civilians were executed. shot with their hands tied behind their backs or had their bodies burned by Russian forces.

“I saw these execution lists, dictated by the traitors – the Russians knew in advance who they were going after, at what addresses, and who lived there,” says Fedoruk, who saw his own name on one of the lists. “Of course, the Ukrainian authorities will seek out and punish these people.”

Ukrainian police search a suspect in Kiev during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. — Photo: REUTERS/Umit Bektas TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

In the besieged port city of Mariupol, officials accused collaborators of helping the Russians cut off electricity, running water, gas and communications in much of the city.

“I now fully understand why the Russians were carrying out such precise and coordinated attacks against critical infrastructure objects, they knew all about the locations and departure times of Ukrainian refugee evacuation buses,” says Mayor Vadym Boychenko.

Political analysts say the invasion and violence by Russian troops against civilians has alienated many sympathizers from Moscow. Still, many supporters remain.

“Russian propaganda has taken very deep roots, and many residents of the east, who watch Russian TV channels, believe absurd accusations that Ukrainians are bombing them and other myths,” Volodymyr Fesenko, from the think tank, told AP. Penta Center. “Naturally, Ukrainian authorities in the southeast are afraid of being stabbed in the back and are being forced to tighten security measures.”

Unlike Viktor, whose Kharkiv apartment was raided, Volodymyr Radnenko, 86, did not appear surprised when Ukrainian security arrived to search his apartment on Saturday after detaining his son, Ihor. The military said the son was suspected of helping the Russians bomb the city – like what happened in the Radnenko neighborhood about 15 minutes before the police arrived, amid the lingering smell of smoke. In the region, at least two people were killed and 19 were injured.

“He’s used to thinking that Russia is all there is,” Radnenko told the AP after the officers left. “I ask him, ‘So who’s bombing us? It’s not our (people), it’s your fascists.’ And he gets really mad about it.”

Karmanau writes from Lviv, Ukraine. Vasilisa Stepanenko in Kharkiv and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed.

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