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Ukrainian civilians vanish and languish in Russian-run jails

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Ukrainian civilians vanish and languish in Russian-run jails
GLOBALTIMESPAKISTAN

 Alina Kapatsyna often dreams about getting a phone call from her mother. In those visions, her mother tells her that she’s coming home.
Men in military uniforms took 45-year-old Vita Hannych away from her house in eastern Ukraine in April. She never returned.

Her family later learned that Hannych, who has long suffered from seizures because of a brain cyst, is in custody in the Russian-occupied part of the Donetsk region.

Kapatsyna told The Associated Press that it remains unclear why her mother — ”a peaceful, civilian and sick person” who has never held a weapon — was detained.

Hannych is one of many Ukrainian noncombatants being held by Russian forces for months following their invasion.

Some are deemed to be prisoners of war, even though they never took part in the fighting. Others are in a sort of legal limbo — not facing any criminal charges or considered to be POWs. Ukrainian estimates of how many there are range from hundreds to many thousands.

Hannych was wearing only a sweatsuit and slippers when she was seized by Russian forces occupying her village of Volodymyrivka several weeks into the Feb. 24 invasion. It is still under Moscow’s control.

Her family initially thought she would come home shortly. Russian forces were known to detain people for two or three days for “filtration” and then release them, Kapatsyna said, and Hannych had no military or law enforcement connections.

When she wasn’t released, Kapatsyna and her 64-year-old grandmother started a search. At first, letters and visits to various Russian-installed officials and government bodies in the Donetsk region yielded no results.

“The answers from everywhere were the same: ‘We did not take her away.’ Who took her then, if no one took her?” said Kapatsyna, who left the village in March for the Ukrainian-controlled city of Dnipro.

Then, they finally got some clarity: Hannych was jailed in Olenivka, another Russian-controlled city, according to a letter from the Moscow-installed prosecutor’s office in the Donetsk region.

The jail staff told Kapatsyna’s grandmother that Hannych was a sniper, allegations her family deems absurd, given her condition. Medical records seen by the AP confirmed that she had a brain cyst, as well as “residual encephalopathy” and “general convulsive attacks.”

Anna Vorosheva, who spent 100 days in the same facility as Hannych, recounted squalid, inhumane conditions: putrid drinking water, no heat or showers, having to sleep in shifts and hearing new prisoners screaming from being beaten.

Vorosheva, 46, said she wasn’t told why she was detained, aside from “smirks and jokes about Nazis” — a reference to Russia’s false claims that what it calls its “special military operation” was a campaign to “denazify” Ukraine. She also said the staff told her: “Be happy we’re not beating you.”

Donetsk authorities labeled Hannych a POW and recently told the family she is imprisoned in the occupied city of Mariupol. It remains unclear when, if at all, she could be released.

Ukraine’s top human rights organization, Center for Civil Liberties, has requests concerning around 900 civilians captured by Russia since the war began, with more than half still in custody.

Dmytro Lubinets, Ukraine’s human rights envoy, put the number even higher and said Friday that his office received inquiries concerning more than 20,000 “civilian hostages” detained by Russia.

Russian lawyer Leonid Solovyov told the AP he has amassed more than 100 requests concerning Ukrainian civilians. He said he was able to help 30-40 confirm the person they looked for was in Russian custody without any legal status — just like his client, Mykyta Shkriabin.

The student from northeastern Ukraine’s Kharkiv region was detained by Russia’s military in March and has been held ever since without charges or any legal proceedings.
Shkriabin, then 19, was sheltering from the fighting in a basement with his family, according to his mother, Tetiana. During a break, he went out for supplies — and never returned.

Tetiana Shkriabina told the AP that she learned from witnesses that Russian soldiers seized him.

Months later, Solovyov got confirmation from Russia’s Defense Ministry that Shkriabin was detained for “resisting the special military operation.” There is no such offense on the books in Russia, Solovyov said, and even if there was, Shkriabin would have been formally charged and investigated, but that hasn’t happened. The ministry refused to disclose his whereabouts.

Moreover, when Solovyov filed a complaint to Russia’s Investigative Committee contesting the detention, it confirmed that there are no criminal probes opened against Shkriabin, that he is neither a suspect, nor an accused.

Shkriabin, who turned 20 in captivity, hasn’t been labeled a POW, the lawyer said, adding: “His legal status is simply a hostage.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry and the Interior Ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Other cases are eerily similar to those of Shkriabin and Hannych.

In May, Russian forces detained information technology specialist Iryna Horobtsova in the southern city of Kherson when it was occupied by Moscow. They raided her apartment, seizing a laptop, two cellphones and several flash drives, and then took her away, according to her sister, Elena Kornii. They promised her parents that she would be home that evening — but it didn’t happen.

Horobtsova remained in the city and spoke out against the war on social media before she was detained, Kornii said. She had attended anti-Russia protests and also helped residents by driving them to work or finding scarce medications.

“She hasn’t violated any Ukrainian laws,” Kornii said, noting that her sister had nothing to do with the military.

Horobtsova’s lawyer, Emil Kurbedinov, said he believed that Russian security forces were carrying out “purges of the disloyal” in Kherson.

He learned from Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, that she was still in custody. The Interior Ministry in Moscow-annexed Crimea told him that Horobtsova was in a detention center there. When Kurbedinov tried to visit her, officials refused to acknowledge having any such prisoner.

As for why she was held, the lawyer said authorities told him that “she resisted the special military operation, and a decision regarding her will be made when the special military operation is over.”

He described her as “unlawfully imprisoned.”

Dmytro Orlov, mayor of the occupied city of Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia region, describes the fate of his deputy the same way — “an absolutely arbitrary detention.”

Ivan Samoydyuk was picked up by Russian soldiers shortly after they seized the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in March, and no charges have been filed against him, Orlov said.

“We’re not even sure if he’s alive!” the mayor said. “If we can’t get clarity from the Russians about the fate of a deputy mayor, imagine the fate of ordinary Ukrainian civilians.”

Mykhailo Savva of the Expert Council of the Center for Civil Liberties said the Geneva Conventions allow a state to detain civilians temporarily in occupied areas, but “as soon as the reason that caused the detention of this civilian disappears, then this person must be released.”

“No special conditions, no trades, just release,” Savva said, noting that civilians can’t be declared POWs under international law.

International law prohibits a warring party from forcibly moving a civilian to its own territory or territory it occupies, and doing so could be deemed a war crime, said Yulia Gorbunova, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.

POWs can be exchanged, but there is no legal mechanism for swapping noncombatants, Gorbunova said, complicating efforts to free civilians from captivity.

Since the war began, however, Kyiv has been able to bring some home. Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said on Jan. 8 that 132 civilians were brought back from Russian captivity in 2022.

Lubinets, the Ukrainian human rights ombudsman, met this month with his Russian counterpart, Tatyana Moskalkova.

He said he gave Moskalkova lists of some of the 20,000 Ukrainian civilians he said were held by Russia, and “the Russian side agreed to find out where they are, in what condition and why they are being held.”

After getting such information, the question “of the procedure for their return” will be raised, Lubinets said.

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Sri Lanka completing pre-requisites for IMF aid – President

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Sri Lanka completing pre-requisites for IMF aid - President

Sri Lanka is completing the pre-requisites to unlock a $2.9 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and expects rapid approval from the global lender, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said on Saturday.

“We are successfully completing the difficult stage required to get support from the International Monetary Fund. We expect to get their consent without delay,” Wickremesinghe said in his address to the nation to mark the 75th Independence Day.

Sri Lanka, caught in the worst financial crisis since independence from Britain in 1948 triggered by a severe shortage of dollars, has seen steep inflation, a currency plunge and its economy slide into recession.

The island of 22 million people has also been hit by high taxes, a shortage of essential items such as medicine and fuel, and daily power cuts.

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Wickremesinghe, who took over after his predecessor fled the country and resigned last year after thousands of protesters occupied his office and residence, has pledged to put the economy back on track but warned it will be an uphill task.

“I know that many of the decisions I have been compelled to take since assuming the presidency have been unpopular …. I will continue this new reform program with the majority of people who love this country,” he added.

Sri Lanka is currently focused on getting financing assurances from key bilateral creditors China and Japan. India, the third major creditor, agreed to support debt restructuring last month.

Sri Lanka’s central bank estimates an economic turnaround in the second half of 2023 and inflation to reach single digits by the end of this year.

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US warns Turkey on exports seen to boost Russia’s war effort

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US warns Turkey on exports seen to boost Russia's war effort

The United States warned Turkey in recent days about the export to Russia of chemicals, microchips and other products that can be used in Moscow’s war effort in Ukraine, and it could move to punish Turkish companies or banks contravening sanctions.

Brian Nelson, the U.S. Treasury Department’s top sanctions official, visited Turkish government and private sector officials on Thursday and Friday to urge more cooperation in disrupting the flow of such goods.

In a speech to bankers, Nelson said a marked year-long rise in exports to Russia leaves Turkish entities “particularly vulnerable to reputational and sanctions risks”, or lost access to G7 markets.

They should “take extra precaution to avoid transactions related to potential dual-use technology transfers that could be used by the Russian military-industrial complex,” he said in a copy of the speech issued by the Treasury.

In the meetings in Ankara and Istanbul, Nelson and a delegation highlighted tens of millions of dollars of exports to Russia that raised concerns, according to a senior U.S. official who requested anonymity.

“There is no surprise…that Russia is actively looking to leverage the historic economic ties it has in Turkey,” the official said. “The question is what is the Turkish response going to be.”

NATO member Ankara opposes the sweeping sanctions on Russia on principle but says they will not be circumvented in Turkey, urging the West to provide any evidence.

Western nations applied the export controls and sanctions after Moscow’s invasion nearly a year ago. Yet supply channels have remained open from Hong Kong, Turkey and other trading hubs.

Citing Russian customs records, Reuters reported in December that at least $2.6 billion of computer and other electronic components flowed into Russia in the seven months to Oct. 31. At least $777 million of these products were made by Western firms whose chips have been found in Russian weapons systems.

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Ankara has balanced its good ties with both Moscow and Kyiv throughout the war, held early talks between the sides and also helped broker a deal for grain shipments from Ukraine.

The trip by Nelson, the Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, is the latest to Turkey by senior U.S. officials aiming to ramp up pressure on Ankara to ensure enforcement of U.S. curbs on Russia.

The pressure has brought some changes.

Turkey’s largest ground-service provider, Havas, told Russian and Belarusian airlines it may stop providing parts, fuel and other services to their U.S.-origin aircraft, in line with Western bans, Reuters reported on Friday citing a Jan. 31 letter from the company.

In September, five Turkish banks suspended use of the Russian Mir payment system after the U.S. Treasury targeted the head of the system’s operator with new sanctions and warned those helping Moscow against skirting them.

Nelson urged the Turkish bankers to conduct enhanced due diligence on Russian-related transactions, and noted in the speech that Russian oligarchs continue to buy property and dock yachts in Turkey.

In separate talks with Turkish firms, Nelson “urgently” flagged the way Russia is believed to be dodging Western controls to re-supply plastics, rubber and semi-conductors found in exported goods and used by the military, the official said.

The person added that after taking steps last year to press Russia to end the war, the U.S. focus is now “on evasion and particularly evasion in third countries that we are seeing”.

Nelson delivered similar messages in the United Arab Emirates and Oman this week, the Treasury said.

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China plays down Blinken’s canceled visit over balloon

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China plays down Blinken's canceled visit over balloon

China played down the cancellation of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken after a large Chinese balloon suspected of conducting surveillance on U.S. military sites roiled diplomatic relations, saying that neither side had formally announced any such plan.

“In actuality, the U.S. and China have never announced any visit, the U.S. making any such announcement is their own business, and we respect that,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement Saturday morning.

Blinken was due to visit Beijing on Sunday for talks aimed at reducing U.S.-China tensions, the first such high-profile trip after the countries’ leaders met last November in Indonesia. But the U.S. abruptly canceled the trip after the discovery of the huge balloon despite China’s claim that it was merely a weather research “airship” that had blown off course.

The Pentagon rejected that out of hand — as well as China’s contention that the balloon was not being used for surveillance and had only limited navigational ability.

Uncensored reactions on the Chinese internet mirrored the official government stance that the U.S. was hyping up the situation.
Many users made jokes about the balloon. Some said that since the U.S. had put restrictions on the technology that China is able to buy to weaken the Chinese tech industry, they couldn’t control the balloon.

Others called it the “wandering balloon” in a pun that refers to the newly released Chinese sci-fi film called “The Wandering Earth 2.”

Still others used it as a chance to poke fun at U.S. defenses, saying it couldn’t even defend against a balloon, and nationalist influencers leapt to use the news to mock the U.S. One wrote wryly: “The U.S., because of the balloon incident, delays Blinken’s visit to China.”

Censorship was visible on the topic — the “wandering balloon” hashtag on Weibo was no longer searchable by Saturday evening.

“The U.S. is hyping this as a national security threat posed by China to the U.S. This type of military threat, in actuality, we haven’t done this. And compared with the U.S. military threat normally aimed at us, can you say it’s just little? Their surveillance planes, their submarines, their naval ships are all coming near our borders,” Chinese military expert Chen Haoyang of the Taihe Institute said on Phoenix TV, one of the major national TV outlets.

The balloon was spotted earlier over Montana, which is home to one of America’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, defense officials said.

President Joe Biden had declined to shoot down the balloon, following advice of defense officials who worried the debris could injure people below.

Meanwhile, people with binoculars and telephoto lenses tried to find the “spy balloon” in the sky as it headed southeastward over Kansas and Missouri at 60,000 feet (18,300 meters).

The Pentagon also acknowledged reports of a second balloon flying over Latin America. “We now assess it is another Chinese surveillance balloon,” Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a question about the second balloon.

Blinken, who had been due to depart Washington for Beijing late Friday, said he had told senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi in a phone call that sending the balloon over the U.S. was “an irresponsible act and that (China’s) decision to take this action on the eve of my visit is detrimental to the substantive discussions that we were prepared to have.”

China has denied any claims of spying, and said it is a civilian-use balloon intended for meteorology research. Experts have said that their response was feasible.

But analysts said the unexpected incident will not help the strained ties between the two countries, and particularly China’s initial response where it said they could not control the balloon and “regretted” that it unintentionally entered U.S. space.

On Saturday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs again emphasized that the balloon’s journey was out of its control and urged the U.S. to not “smear” it based on the balloon.
Wang said China “has always strictly followed international law, we do not accept any groundless speculation and hype.Faced with unexpected situations, both parties need to keep calm, communicate in a timely manner, avoid misjudgments and manage differences.”

Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore, said China’s apology did not appear sincere.
“In the meantime, the relationship will not improve in the near future … the gap is huge.”

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