The Kremlin’s Political Prisoners: The Case of Vladimir Balukh
Vladimir Balukh is a Ukrainian farmer who was convicted of illegal possession of ammunition (Criminal Code Article 222(1)) and disrupting the activities of a detention center (Article 321(2)). In reality, he is being punished for his outspoken pro-Ukraine activism.
Balukh, who lives in Crimea, was known for opposing the Russian occupation. He had refused Russian citizenship and drawn the attention of local authorities by hanging a Ukrainian flag on his home and participating in pro-Ukrainian actions. In November 2016, he hung another sign on his house praising the “Heavenly Hundred,” a reference to the protestors killed by government forces in Kyiv just before Russiafriendly President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in 2014. The chairman of the village council and his assistants demanded that he remove the sign and threatened that they would someday “find” weapons or drugs on him. Soon thereafter, FSB officials searched his house and “found” ammunition. Balukh was arrested, charged with possession of illegal ammunition, and placed in pretrial detention. He was convicted in January 2018 (on retrial) and sentenced to three years and five months in prison. In July 2018, Balukh was sentenced to an additional three years for disrupting the activities of a detention center – he had allegedly struck an officer there.
The allegations against Balukh are meritless. As Memorial HRC has explained: “It seems highly unlikely that a well-known regional activist who is subject to constant pressure from law enforcement officials and local government officials, [and] whose house was searched twice in 2015, would store ammunition.” Furthermore, neither Balukh’s nor his wife’s fingerprints were found on the ammunition allegedly discovered in his home. In addition, confirming the political nature of the case, the officials who searched his home tore down the Ukrainian flag hanging on it. Regarding the conviction for disrupting the activities of a detention center, Balukh insists that the officer hit him first on the left shoulder, and he reflexively jerked his elbow back, which hit the officer. Balukh’s lawyer has explained that video recordings of the incident support Balukh’s description of the events.
Balukh’s detention has been criticized by the European Union, which called him an “illegally-detained Ukrainian citizen,” and the US State Department, which listed him as one of the “Ukrainians unjustly imprisoned.” The UK’s Minister of State for Europe and the Americas also called for Balukh’s release, saying that “[n]o one should be imprisoned for opposing the illegal annexation of Crimea.” The UN General Assembly also adopted a resolution in December 2018 “expressing deep concern about the ongoing arbitrary detentions and arrests by the Russian Federation of Ukrainian citizens, including Volodymyr Balukh.”