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Oh Putin, Release Them Prisoners: Zelenskyy Urges African Leaders to Help Free Political Prisoners from Crimea and Beyond

In a diplomatic move, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine appealed to a group of African leaders on Friday to ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to release political prisoners in Crimea and beyond. The leaders, including top envoys from the Republic of Congo and Uganda and presidents from Comoros, Senegal, South Africa, and Zambia, were on a self-styled “peace mission” to Ukraine and Russia in an effort to end their 16-month-old war. This mission comes after other peace initiatives, including one by China, and holds extra importance for African countries that rely on food and fertilizer deliveries from Russia and Ukraine, whose war has impeded exports from one of the world’s most important breadbaskets.

Image credits: The Associated Press

During a press conference with Zelenskyy and the other African heads of state and government, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa acknowledged the intensity of the fight and the animosity between Russia and Ukraine. However, he insisted that all wars must come to an end and that the delegation wants to help expedite that. “I do believe that Ukrainians feel that they must fight and not give up. The road to peace is very hard,” he said. “There is a need to bring this conflict to an end sooner rather than later.” The delegation, representing a cross-section of African views about the war, includes Senegal’s President Macky Sall and Presidents Hakainde Hichilema of Zambia.

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Image credits: ABC News

Although South Africa, Senegal, and Uganda have avoided censuring Moscow for the conflict, Egypt, Zambia, and Comoros voted against Russia last year in a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Moscow’s invasion. Many African nations have long had close ties with Moscow, dating back to the Cold War when the Soviet Union supported their anti-colonial struggles.

Image credits: BBC

The press conference took a sour turn when Comoros President Azali Assoumani floated the idea of a “road map” to peace, prompting questions from Zelenskyy who sought clarification and insisted he didn’t want “any surprises” from their visit with Putin. Zelenskyy then urged them to help free political prisoners from Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014. “Would you please ask Russia to liberate the political prisoners?” Zelenskyy said. “Maybe this will be an important result of your mission, of your ‘road map’.”

International human rights organizations claim Russia has targeted the Crimean Tatar ethnic group with arbitrary detentions and unjustified prosecutions since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Many have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms. “The Russian Federation misuses its legislation for political purposes, in particular to suppress the nonviolent struggle of the Crimean Tatars and their protest against the occupation of Crimea,” the Crimean Tatar Resource Center said in a statement last year.

Zelenskyy expressed thinly veiled frustration about their trip, saying they would have “conversations with the terrorists” on Saturday. Ramaphosa, who laid out ten priorities to help pave the way to ending the war, said he planned to have a bilateral meeting with Putin in part to discuss the Russian leader’s possible attendance at a planned August summit hosted by South Africa of the so-called “BRICS” countries, which also include Brazil, China, and India. The International Criminal Court in March issued an international arrest warrant against Putin over Russian abductions of Ukrainian.

Overall, this diplomatic mission by African leaders to Ukraine and Russia marks an important step towards ending the 16-month-old war. However, the continued detention of political prisoners in Crimea and beyond remains a contentious issue, with Zelenskyy urging Putin to release them and international human rights organizations condemning their detention. It remains to be seen how this “peace mission” will play out and whether it will bring about any tangible results.


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