Family and friends of a prominent Ukrainian human rights activist who signed up to fight Russia and was captured have launched a public campaign to highlight his plight over fears he is being wrongly accused of being a “British spy” due to his ties to the UK.
Maksym Butkevych, 45, a former BBC Ukrainian service producer who studied at Sussex University and who sits on the board of Amnesty International’s Ukraine section, is well known as a human rights defender due to his work with refugees in Ukraine.
He is one of an estimated 7,200 Ukrainian prisoners of war held by Russian and Russian allied forces.
Friends and colleagues say Butkevych, who spent most of his life holding anti-militarist views, decided to join Ukraine’s armed forces as a volunteer only after Russia’s invasion in February.
Last week his friend Oleksandra Matviichuk, the head of Ukraine’s Centre for Civil Liberties, posted on Twitter some of Butkevych’s comments about joining up, highlighting why he felt he could no longer sit on the sidelines. “I have been an anti-militarist all my conscious life and remain so by conviction.
“But at this time, I feel in my place. These are tragic times. Everyone is doing what they can in the place they are.”
Butkevych’s case highlights the difficult situation for families of Ukrainian prisoners of war often struggling to find any information about missing relatives or the conditions they are being held in among concerns some prisoners are being treated differently by their Russian captors.
Sitting in their flat in Kyiv, Butkevych’s parents, Oleksandr and Yvenhia, described the circumstances of their son’s capture. “We got a call from another volunteer on 24 June to say that Maksym had been captured and we were sent a link to a video of his interrogation which was shown on Russian television,” said Oleksandr. “He seemed exhausted.”
According to the story told by Butkevych, his unit – which had been serving near Hirske in the Luhansk region of the Donbas – had been lured into a trap after two of its scouts who had been sent to fetch water were themselves captured by the Russians and then radioed the unit on Russian instructions to move position to avoid being encircled.
“They were tricked. They didn’t realise the scout they were talking to had already been captured themselves,” said Oleksandr.
“After seeing that video, we had no information for weeks. We were advised that it was best not to talk about Maksym’s capture. But then we started seeing messages on Russian social media saying that they had captured ‘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 individual with the same surname.
“We are so worried about him. He was captured with 13 other soldiers but he is the one they have singled out and we are concerned they are trying to incriminate him.He has been an anti-fascist and an anti-racist all his life,” his mother said. “He has been helping refugees fleeing to Ukraine from abroad because of religious persecution or because of their sexual identity.
“We understand you cannot have war without prisoners of war,” his father added. “If Maksym was just one of those prisoners, we would just quietly wait for an exchange, but since he is being singled [out], the only way to counter the false information is to say who he really is, how he helped others, and now we are asking his friends from here and other countries to help him.”
“We really need to find out where he is,” his mother added, “and whether they are being tortured.”
Kyrylo Loukerenko, the executive director for the Hromadske public radio station and website, which Butkevych co-founded, described the difficult decision to publicise the case. “At first, when we saw the video, a lot of of us thought we needed to publicise the situation but the officials we contacted told us it was better not to make him a special among the other POWs.
“But when his parents were notified he had been captured they decided it was better to make it public [because of what Russian commentators were saying about him]. They are trying to portray him as an anti-Russian nationalist but he is a person who is passionate about human rights.”
According to Oleh Kotenko, the Ukrainian commissioner for people missing in special circumstances, about 7,200 Ukrainians serving in various military and security wings, including the border guard, are missing, with the majority believed to be captured.
Lawyers advising relatives of POWs raise a number of concerns not least that the much larger number of Ukrainians held by Russian forces in comparison with Russians held by Ukraine is complicating negotiations for prisoner exchanges ,which have so far led to only a few hundred wounded Ukrainians being returned.
In the biggest exchange, in later June, 144 Ukrainian prisoners were returned, many of them badly wounded.
“The Russians have more prisoners, so the exchange numbers are unequal,” said Vladislav Ignatiev, one of a network of lawyers working to advise Ukrainian families. “The other issue is that the Russians are treating some of those captured as in different categories. They are opening criminal cases against some, so their status is not as a prisoner of war.”
Among this group are some from the Azov regiment who were captured during the fall of the southern port city of Mariupol.
At least two Ukrainian members of that regiment are reportedly facing the death penalty after being removed from the penal colony where they were being held.
“For others,” said Ignatiev, “the concern is that there is no information about [them] at all.”
July 17, 2022 at 06:25PM Peter Beaumont in Kyiv