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Radio Svoboda: Italian senators will ask Prime Minister Conte to exert influence on Putin and bring about the release of Ukrainian prisoners

On Thursday 19 July, 2018, Italian Senator Roberto Rampi together with the Open Dialog Foundation (ODF) and the Italian Federation for Human Rights (FIDU), hosted a press conference at the premises of the Italian Senate entitled “In defense of civil liberties. Testimonies from Russia, Moldova and Kazakhstan”.

The event saw the participation of Italian Senator Mr. Roberto Rampi, President of ODF Ms. Lyudmyla Kozlovska, President of FIDU Mr. Antonio Stango and Mr. Igor Kotelianets, brother of Ukrainian political prisoner Mr. Yevgeniy Panov, illegally held on the territory of occupied Crimea.

During the event, Mr. Igor Kotelianets told the audience the dramatic events that led to the incarceration and torture of his brother and activist, Mr. Yevgeniy Panov, by the Russian authorities. As explained by Mr. Kotelianets, Mr. Panov is one of the 70 Ukrainian citizens, imprisoned on the territory of the Russian Federation or the Crimean Peninsula, since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Journalist from Radio Svoboda, Ms. Natalka Kudrik, wrote the following article, explaining Mr. Rampi’s proposal to initiate an open letter addressed to Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, on the occasion of his visit to President Putin next autumn.

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Italian senators will ask Prime Minister Conte to exert influence on Putin and bring about the release of Ukrainian prisoners

20.07.2018, 08:10, Natalka Kudrik

Rome – On the eve of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s visit to Russia in October, Italian parliamentarians intend to prepare a letter in order to draw the attention of Russian President Vladimir Putin to human rights abuses and the release of Ukrainian political prisoners. The initiative was announced on Thursday by Roberto Rampi, a Senator from the Italian opposition, during a press conference in Rome devoted to the topic of violations of civil rights and freedoms in Russia, Kazakhstan and Moldova.

It wasn’t for the first time since the beginning of Ukraine’s struggle to free political prisoners from the Kremlin’s captivity that evidence of terrible torture in Russian prisons and the pressure exerted on counsels who have dared to defend Ukrainian activists in Russia or Russia-occupied Crimea was presented in the Italian Senate.

Ihor Kotelyanets, the head of the ‘Association of the Relatives of the Kremlin’s Political Prisoners’ and the brother of the convicted activist Yevgeniy Panov, announced the information about the reasons and conditions of detention in the hands of the Russian special services. However, the main purpose of his speech was to address Italian politicians with a request that they render assistance in releasing more than 60 arrested Ukrainians and to prevent such incidents the future.

“We kindly request that you make public appeals and statements, demanding the release of prisoners, and disseminate them through the media. This is important as we have evidence that the more information and resonance is spread in the world, the more effective the efforts to stop the abuse of our relatives. And so, the more information is disseminated in the world, the better the protection of our relatives. We also request that personal sanctions be imposed on Russian officials involved in such treatment of political prisoners. We know that they fear these restrictions”- Ihor Kotelyanets stated.

An important initiative

It is hard to predict how fast, and if, his direct addressees are going to heed his appeal, as the political majority of them, as regards their relations with Moscow, is primarily concerned with the economic issues of lifting the euro-sanctions imposed on Russia due to the annexation of Crimea and armed aggression in the Donbass. The conference on the violation of the rights of political activists in countries which are quite distant for Italians, was attended by number of interested listeners. The fact of addressing the most painful topic for Ukraine in the upper house of the Italian Parliament can already be considered an extraordinary event. Participants and conference organisers, including the international foundation ‘Open Dialog’ believe that this is a step forward towards attracting the attention of foreign politicians and the public to the criminal actions of the Russian authorities

The first encouraging signal came from the mouth of a senator from the opposition ‘Democratic Party’, Roberto Rampi. He announced plans to write a letter to the head of government, Giuseppe Conte, and to collect parliamentary signatures in the light of Italian Prime Minister’s forthcoming visit to Russia (scheduled for 24 October, 2018) at the invitation of Vladimir Putin.

“We will ask the head of our government to raise this issue (violation of human rights) at a meeting with the president of Russia. In addition to discussing bilateral relations, I believe that Italy should play a more prominent role in protecting civil rights in the world. And so, the subject of the EU-US sanctions against Russia is important, but Italy should not neglect two aspects: human rights violations and non-compliance with international law in this area”, Senator Roberto Rampi stated.

Representatives of the diplomatic corps of Ukraine, present at the conference, labelled this initiative of the Senate ‘extremely positive’. In their opinion, this is particularly important, given the lack of interest of the pro-government political forces in Ukrainian issues. Despite numerous appeals, government parties (especially the right-wing radical ‘League’) are currently avoiding a dialogue with Ukrainian diplomats on the issue of political prisoners.

The public opinion is divided

Will the senators’ letter be a response to nine Italian MPs who voted against the European Parliament resolution on releasing film director Oleg Sentsov and other prisoners last month?

How do Italian speakers – activists in the field of civil rights and freedoms – explain the negative voting of their colleagues in the European Parliament? When asked this question by the Radio Liberty, political scientist Antonio Stango, the head of the Italian Federation for the Protection of Human Rights, replied as follows: “It is very sad (that some Italian representatives did not support the resolution of the European Parliament regarding the release of film director Sentsov and other Ukrainian prisoners). Of course, one should pay more attention and inform everyone about the consequences of Russia’s invasion of a free, independent state of Ukraine”.

During the discussion, another tangent issue was raised at the request of Radio Liberty. The question as to how sensitive is the public opinion in Italy to gross violations of human rights and freedoms abroad and can voters demand that their politicians take decisive action to improve the situation was subjected to discussion. Observing the radical actions of Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini (the ‘League’) to counter the massive migration of African refugees, human rights defenders have highlighted the apparent violation of human rights and international obligations of the country.

And, at the same time, according to various sociological studies, the rating of right radicals is growing rapidly. In other words, the electorate supports the actions of a government official who, despite international rules, closes seaports and labels migrants’ journeys ‘cruises’. Since the Italian voter closes his eyes to the deaths of women and children at their borders, the mistreatment of migrants in Libyan camps, is he able to worry about the fate of innocent convicted Ukrainians in distant Crimea or Russia?

“At present, public opinion in Italy, similarly to other countries, is divided in relation to the violation of civil rights. It is due to the fact that it is only when you have information that you can make an stand about something or show your attitude. The Italian media are paying too little attention to this topic, and especially to international affairs. But I think that a third of the population is still interested in these issues”, Member of the Italian Senate Roberto Rampi enunciated.

He added that due to the local media’s focus on domestic policy issues, ordinary Italians simply don’t know what is happening abroad, and, therefore, they cannot make a stand regarding the problem. The Senator was also asked why, not only in Italy, but also in other countries, many citizens and politicians are indulgent towards the unlawful aggression of Russia in the neighbouring country. Here, Senator Rampi briefly recalled Russia’s current important role on the geopolitical chessboard and summed up with the following words: “This is Realpolitik”.

Read the article in Ukrainian language