The family and friends of a prominent Ukrainian human rights activist who pledged to fight Russia and was captured have launched a public campaign to highlight his plight for fear of being wrongly accused of being a “British spy” because of his ties to the UK.
Maksym Butkevych, 45, a former Ukrainian service producer for the BBC who studied at the University of Sussex and sits on the board of directors of the Ukrainian section of Amnesty International, is well known as a human rights defender because of his work with refugees in Ukraine.
He is one of approximately 7,200 Ukrainian prisoners of war held by Russian and Russian-allied forces.
Friends and colleagues say Butkevych, who has spent most of his life advocating anti-militarist views, only decided to join the Ukrainian Armed Forces as a volunteer after the Russian invasion in February.
Last week, his friend Oleksandra Matviichuk, director of the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties, tweeted some of Butkevych’s comments about joining, highlighting why he felt he could no longer stay away.
“I have been a conscious anti-militarist all my life and I remain one out of conviction. But right now, I feel like I belong. These are tragic times. Everyone does what they can where they are. »
Butkevych’s case highlights the plight of families of Ukrainian prisoners of war who often struggle to find information about missing relatives or the conditions in which they are held, as some prisoners are treated differently by their Russian captors. .
Sitting in their apartment in Kyiv, Butkevych’s parents, Oleksandr and Yvenhia, described the circumstances of their son’s capture. “We received a call from another volunteer on June 24 telling us that Maksym had been captured and we received a link to a video of his interrogation which was shown on Russian TV,” Oleksandr said. “He looked exhausted.”
According to the story told by Butkevych, his unit – which was serving near Hirske in the Luhansk region of the Donbass – had been lured into a trap after two of his scouts who had been sent to fetch water were themselves captured by the Russians and then radioed the unit Russian instructions to move to avoid being surrounded.
“They were deceived. They didn’t know that the scout they were talking to had already been captured themselves,” Oleksandr said.
“After seeing this video, we had no information for weeks. We were told it was better not to talk about Maksym’s capture. But then we started seeing posts on social media Russians saying they had caught “a big fish”, that he was a Nazi and a British spy”.
According to Butkevych’s friends and family, some of the accusations on Russian social media appear to have confused him with another person with the same last name.
“We are so worried about him. He was captured with 13 other soldiers but it is him they have pointed the finger at and we fear that they are trying to incriminate him. He was anti-fascist and anti-racist his whole life,” his mother said. “He has helped refugees fleeing to Ukraine from abroad due to religious persecution or because of their gender identity.
“We understand you can’t have a war without POWs,” his father added. “If Maksym was just one of those prisoners, we would quietly wait for an exchange, but since he is single [out]the only way to counter false information is to say who he really is, how he helped others, and now we ask his friends from here and other countries to help him.
“We really need to know where he is,” his mother added, “and if they are being tortured.”
Kyrylo Loukerenko, executive director of public radio station and website Hromadske, which Butkevych co-founded, described the difficult decision to publicize the case. “At first when we saw the video, many of us thought it was necessary to publicize the situation, but the officials we contacted told us that it was better not to make it a special one among the people. other prisoners of war.
“But when his parents found out he had been captured, they decided it was best to go public. [because of what Russian commentators were saying about him]. They try to present him as an anti-Russian nationalist, but he is a person with a passion for human rights.
According to Oleh Kotenko, Ukraine’s commissioner for missing persons under special circumstances, around 7,200 Ukrainians serving in various military and security wings, including border guards, are missing, with the majority believed to have been captured.
Lawyers advising relatives of prisoners of war raise a number of concerns, including that the much higher number of Ukrainians held by Russian forces compared to Russians held by Ukraine complicates prisoner exchange negotiations, which have so far only led to a few hundred injured Ukrainians. revenue.
In the largest exchange, at the end of June, 144 Ukrainian prisoners were returned, many of them seriously injured.
“The Russians have more prisoners, so the number of exchanges is uneven,” said Vladislav Ignatiev, a member of a network of lawyers working to advise Ukrainian families. “The other problem is that the Russians are treating some of the captured people as different categories. They are opening criminal cases against some, so their status is not POW.
Among this group are members of the Azov Regiment who were captured during the fall of the southern port city of Mariupol.
At least two Ukrainian members of this regiment would face the death penalty after being expelled from the penal colony where they were held.
“For others,” Ignatiev said, “the problem is that there is no information about [them] at all.”