This article was updated on August 24, 2023.

Maksym Butkevych, the prominent human rights advocate jailed by Russia on trumped-up charges, has marked his second birthday as a captive of Vladimir Putin’s regime. 

Butkevych was told by a Moscow appeal court on August 22 that his 13-year sentence for supposed war crimes committed when he was hundreds of kilometers away, had been upheld. The only concession was that some of the period spent in pre-trial detention would count as time served.   

“Today marks 14 months of me being in a pre-trial detention center . . . It’s 14 months longer than needed. I try to write a lot, but as there’s no paper or pen available, so I write in my head. Some articles are in Ukrainian, some in English . . . I even recollected some French,” he said from his prison cell via an online stream in occupied Luhansk.  

Maksym, known to friends as Maks, has not formally denied guilt to aid a possible prisoner exchange. His lawyer stated that he has evidence of Butkevich’s innocence. If an exchange does not take place in the near future, another appeal will be filed. The Ukrainian had previously angered the Kremlin by protesting at the G8 summit in St. Petersburg in 2008. 

“This process is a total fiction . . . As for Maks, he is an absolutely wonderful human being. Many, many people owe him their lives. He was the key person in Ukraine helping refugees and migrants . .  Nobody who knows Maksym believes he did what he is being accused of,” said Svetlana Hannushkina, a member of the Council of the Memorial Center who was present at the hearing in the First Court of Appeal. “It is senseless to speak about judicial independence [in the occupied territories] and now we are observing a full destruction of the judicial system.” German, British, and French consular staff, as well as Oleg Orlov from Memorial, attended court to support Butkevych and indicate the international importance of the case. 

Commenting, Denis Krivosheev of Amnesty International said: “A court in Moscow has upheld the decision made during a sham trial which was held in secret, against a defendant who had limited contact with the outside world, including his lawyer, and was apparently forced to incriminate himself on video for a crime which Maksym Butkevych simply could not have committed.” 

A co-founder of the “No Borders” initiative aimed at providing support to asylum seekers in Ukraine and internally displaced persons, of ZMINA Human Rights Center and Hromadske public radio, Butkevych has always worked to help humanity. Moreover, as a committed advocate against hate speech and as a journalist, Butkevych has worked for a number of Ukrainian and international media outlets, including the BBC. 

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That is the Butkevych that everyone knows. But the Butkevych held by Russia is described as someone else entirely, a “neo-Nazi” who by definition cares nothing for human rights or humanity. That sends a deeply worrying signal about how he might be treated. It is important to everyone who knows him that the real Butkevych is now brought home to his friends, family, and numerous admirers, as soon as possible. 

Butkevych had always been a pacifist. But not long after Russia’s full-scale invasion of 24 February 2022, he volunteered to join the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. “I have been an anti-militarist all my conscious life and remain so by conviction. But at present, I feel in the right place. These are tragic times. Everyone is doing what they can in the place they are,” he said.  

Last summer, as Ukraine fought for its life, he was captured by the Russian forces in the Luhansk region. According to the information released by the Russian Investigative Committee on March 10, the so-called Supreme Court of the Luhansk National Republic sentenced him to 13 years in prison, along with two other Ukrainian servicemen — Viktor Pokhozey and Vladislav Shel, who received 8.5 and 18.5 years respectively. The Russians claim he confessed to the “cruel treatment of civilians and the use of prohibited methods in the armed conflict”, specifically that he fired grenades at the door of a house, wounding two women. But Butkevych’s lawyer was not allowed to attend and no one has spoken to him since the verdict. 

There are some serious problems with the Russian account. It states that the crimes he was accused of were committed on June 4. As reported by the independent Russian outlet, Grati, he was not in eastern Ukraine on that day; his unit was based near Kyiv at least until June 14. And the wounded women say they could not see who fired the munition that hit them. 

The Russians decided to charge Butkevych with crimes contrary to the Geneva Conventions. That decision was made just a couple of weeks after UN Secretary-General António Guterres said Russia had itself “committed the most massive violations of human rights” in the world today. This fits with a pattern of indifference to the laws of war. The Kremlin withdrew from one of the Geneva protocols designed to protect civilians in 2019 and has selectively interpreted their application in its Ukraine war. 

So why target Butkevych? There’s a history. He has consistently spoken out against the Kremlin’s systematic abuse of human rights. He has also been in Russian captivity in the past. 

In 2006, during the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, he was arrested while covering a street protest, although he was working as a journalist and later sentenced to two days’ detention. The European Court of Human Rights found that the Russian government “had violated a journalist’s right to freedom of expression by arresting, prosecuting and sentencing him to administrative detention following his attempt to photograph a protest.”  

Maksym Butkevych’s mother once said that since childhood, he had wanted to become an astronaut, but heart problems had prevented him from fulfilling his dream. However, his work attests to a life spent helping many others to fulfill theirs. And I am sure that sitting in a cold prison cell, he dreams another dream – to live long enough to come back home and witness Ukraine’s victory. 

“There are times when you have to be ready to defend what is important – I firmly believe in that,” Butkevych said in March 2022. It is the time for all of us to defend what is important too. And right now, that means saving Lieutenant Butkevych. 

Here is the link to the Free Maksym Butkevych petition (scroll down for the English version.) 

Elena Davlikanova is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) She is an Associate Professor at Sumy State University. 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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