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OSCE/Evgeniy Maloletka

Fate of OSCE personnel detained in separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine hangs by a thread

Stephanie Liechtenstein
News 27 May 2022

Russian proxies continue to hold OSCE Ukrainian staff captive in pro-Russian separatist territories in Ukraine’s east, the OSCE said in a statement on Wednesday.

The OSCE evacuated its international staff members, who had been seconded by OSCE participating States to the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM), from Ukraine after Russia’s invasion. Many local Ukrainian staff members, however, remained in the country.

“The continuous allegations made against the SMM’s Mission members have become increasingly outrageous,” said OSCE Secretary General Helga Schmid. “Our detained colleagues are being held unjustifiably and must be released immediately. This targeted campaign against the SMM and all intimidation or harassment of current or former OSCE staff must immediately stop.”

“The SMM was always providing objective information on the security and humanitarian situation in Ukraine,” said the OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, who currently chairs the OSCE. “I highly appreciate the professionalism, dedication and impartiality of the SMM staff. Their protection and integrity are our priority. Acts of intimidation, harassment and hostile public rhetoric including undermining their credibility and impartiality by spreading unfounded claims are unacceptable,” Rau said.

Accused of high treason

The OSCE is particularly alarmed by the case of an arrested national staff member who was accused of high treason by the security services of the Luhansk separatists on Tuesday. The so-called Luhansk Media Center reported that a criminal case had been launched against the mission member, who they said was named Petrov. The SHR Monitor understands that this allegation could potentially carry a lifelong prison sentence or even the death penalty if the person is officially charged and convicted.

In April, four OSCE national staff members were detained in Ukraine’s non-government-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. Finally, Russian proxies outlawed the OSCE SMM in both areas on April 30 and a hostile media campaign was initiated against the mission and its staff.

Two days before that was put into effect, on April 28, the OSCE announced the formal closure of the SMM, as the mission’s mandate could not be renewed due to Russia’s opposition and it became clear that negotiations over a potential future presence in the country would no longer be fruitful.

On April 29, two more OSCE national staff were detained, bringing the total number of arrested OSCE Ukrainian staff members to six. At the beginning of May, two of those six were released, the SHR Monitor has learned from OSCE diplomatic sources.

Atmosphere of fear

The SHR Monitor has also learned from people familiar with the matter that OSCE national staff members were summoned for questioning by Russian proxies. While they were allowed to leave again, these actions nevertheless create fear among OSCE local mission members, the SHR Monitor was told.

The OSCE says that it will continue to use all available channels to secure the release of the four remaining mission members in custody. The OSCE says it cannot provide further details due to the sensitivity of the issue. The Organization also says that the functional immunities of its current and former employees should be respected as a principle of international law.

The OSCE SMM 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. It was composed of unarmed civilian monitors who had been seconded by OSCE participating States, as well as national mission members. The process to fully close down the SMM, which was the OSCE’s largest field operation, will take several months, and probably last until at least the end of October.

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