The Ukrainian government and officials called on men in the occupied territories to avoid being mobilised. Those who were mobilised were told to surrender to Ukrainian forces at the earliest opportunity. Officials promised that as long as a person didn’t commit any war crimes, they would eventually be allowed to return home.
Since then, however, local courts in Ukraine have tried and issued sentences in more than 50 cases of treason, according to the national court register.
Since details of specific cases are closed to the public, openDemocracy can not verify which of these cases involve people who were forcibly mobilised – as opposed to those who voluntarily joined the Russians.
But Lunova, who has reviewed cases in the register, says judges have heard cases where defendants explain they were coerced into joining up. In these cases, she says, the defendants have been sentenced to between 13 and 15 years in prison.
Under Ukraine’s martial law, a person could potentially be sentenced to life imprisonment for treason.
Residents of the occupied territories who want to avoid being mobilised live in fear.
For the past nine months, Yuriy* has been hiding in Donetsk. He tries to make sure no one can see into his apartment from the street. He keeps his curtains shut and the lights switched off in the evening. His mother brings him food and water, he doesn’t go to the shop by himself.
“To sit alone in four walls is horribly crushing,” Yuriy told openDemocracy over a messaging app.
“I had my own issues before, but now it seems I’ve got more of them. I started drinking more, my sleep deteriorated, and I’ve gained weight. It’s all unpleasant.
“I really want to go out, at least just for a walk, but I don’t risk it yet,” he wrote.
In February, Yuriy says a local university sent one of his friends to the conscription office under threat of expulsion. Since then, Yuriy’s friend has been listed as missing. Another of his friends, a work colleague, died – most probably killed – after he was mobilised.
Prior to the Russian invasion this year, it was possible to bribe your way out of conscription in Donetsk or Luhansk and cross the border into Russia.
Now the only way is to lay low until the war ends. Avoiding mobilisation can carry up to a 10-year prison sentence from the occupation authorities.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Ukraine, Ukrainians in the Russian ranks are protected by the Geneva Convention if captured, and are considered POWs.
Lunova says that Ukraine nonetheless has the right to prosecute its citizens for siding with the enemy, under domestic law. The problem is that it is failing to distinguish between criminals and victims.
Some Ukrainians joined Russian-backed forces voluntarily. And some forcibly mobilised people may have committed war crimes.
For these reasons, Ukraine can’t offer a blanket amnesty to all prisoners. But Ukraine’s initially generous position has shifted as mobilisation has grown, says Lunova.
“Ukraine’s political position has changed. At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the scale of mobilisation was not clear, and it wasn't clear how [mobilisation] would look on the frontlines.”
The change in official position may have also come directly from Ukraine’s general prosecutor, Lunova says.
The cases she examined show a ‘unified practice’ in prosecuting forcibly mobilised personnel, suggesting an order from the top.
“We tried to communicate to [GP] Andriy Kostin about the problem that Ukrainian citizens are facing horrible sentences under questionable investigation. But I have a feeling that the Prosecutor’s Office is avoiding this subject because it is a difficult matter,” says Lunova.
Another reason why Ukraine might have changed its policy on POWs is the need to increase the numbers of captured soldiers it can exchange with Russia, according to a conflict analyst with a Ukrainian NGO.
“The Russians have likely had more [POWs] because Ukrainian forces were in defence during the first part of the invasion,” said the analyst, who spoke to openDemocracy on condition of anonymity.
Neither Ukraine nor Russia has published numbers of POWs in their captivity since February.
Since October, Ukraine has returned 104 Ukrainian citizens to the occupied parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions in prisoner exchanges, according to Denis Pushilin, head of the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’.
Last month, says Pavel Lysyanskyi, his client Serhiy was exchanged and returned to the occupied territories, without his knowledge. Public records show an exchange in September of another forcefully mobilised POW from Donetsk region who was convicted for the same offences as Serhiy.
Ukraine’s Ministry for the Reintegration of Occupied Territories continues to call on Donetsk and Luhansk residents to inform Ukraine about instances of forced mobilisation and to surrender to Ukrainian forces if mobilised.
“To trial forcefully mobilised for treason is obviously wrong. Things must be changed. How exactly is up for debate,” Lunova says.
*Names have been changed