Ukraine’s Kyiv Court of Appeals on September 5 released from jail on his own recognizance 58-year-old Volodymyr Tsemakh, а Russia-allied separatist fighter and suspect and witness in the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The release occurs amidst ongoing media speculation about a possible large-scale exchange of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia.
Tsemakh’s release from prison, pending trial, follows that of RIA-Novosti Ukraine editor-in-chief Kirill Vyshinsky on August 28.
Ukrainian special forces seized Tsemakh, a Ukrainian citizen who commanded an air-defense unit in the separatist-controlled Donetsk territory, on June 27. He has been charged with organizing a terrorist group or terrorist organization – an accusation that is usually brought against those who have fought against the Ukrainian army in eastern Ukraine.
The chief investigator of the Joint Investigation Team looking into the causes of the July 17, 2014 crash of MH17 over separatist-controlled eastern Ukraine, Fred Westerbeke, has requested the Ukrainian Prosecutor General’s Office not include Tsemakh in the expected exchange of prisoners with Russia, the Dutch publication NRC Handelsbad reported.
“We would have liked to have speak [sic] to him and it’s going to be difficult now,” spokeswoman Brechtje van de Moosdijk told RFE/RL by telephone. “We would rather have him in Ukraine so we could speak to him.”
A September 4 letter to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy from 40 European Parliament members states that “It has come to our attention that the Russian Federation has requested” that Tsemakh be included in the prospective prisoner exchange. It underlined Tsemakh’s “availability and testimony before the Joint Investigation Team” is of the “utmost importance.”
Without making specific mention of Tsemakh, Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 5 hinted that preparations for an exchange might finally be drawing to a close.
“It was rather complicated to make decisions about concrete people, but we’re approaching the finale,” Putin said during the Far East Economic Forum in Russia’s Vladivostok, news agencies reported.
He described the prospective exchange as “rather large, broad, and a good step ahead toward normalization” of relations with Ukraine.
Tsemakh’s lawyer, Roman Gontaryev, however, told the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN on September 5 that he knew nothing about any plans to exchange Tsemakh for Russian-held Ukrainian prisoners.
The Soviet-Afghan War vet’s daughter, Maria, contends that Tsemakh’s connection with MH17 appears to be the only reason why Ukraine’s special services seized him from “deep inside” the conflict zone, the BBC’s Russian Service reported this July.
In 2015, he told the YouTube video channel Rodina (Motherland) that he had been serving at his post near the town of Snizhne when MH17 was shot down. He claimed that fighters had been aiming at Ukrainian military planes. One plane was shot down, he said. He claimed that a second Ukrainian plane had fired back and downed "the Boeing" -- an allegation international investigators reject.
In the interview about his experience, Tsemakh stated that he had pulled away “some kid” from the crash site and hid “something.”
Another word has been bleeped out of this conversation. The online investigative group Bellingcat contends that Tsemakh’s lips were forming the Russian word “Buk,” the Russian-made missile system international investigators allege was used to shoot down MH17.
The flight’s 298 crew and passengers, including 196 Dutch citizens, were all killed in the crash.