On 10 March, 2023, a kangaroo court in the Russian-occupied Ukrainian region of Luhansk sentenced POW Maksym Butkevych, a lifelong Ukrainian human rights activist from the Left, to thirteen years in a high-security prison. Maksym Butkevych was among thousands of peaceful Ukrainians who volunteered for the Armed Forces of Ukraine immediately after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. He was captured by the Russian invaders in late June 2022.
This brutal repression of a well-known Ukrainian anti-fascist once more reveals the true fascist face of Russian aggressors and their puppets. We, like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine and numerous international human rights organizations including Amnesty International, condemn this and similar show trials as null and void. Thus, we joined hands with other Ukrainian civil society groups and individuals in an appeal / petition calling upon the international community to demand the release of our friend Maksym Butkevych and other political prisoners.
Butkevych’s childhood dream was to become a cosmonaut and see our planet from above, without state borders and divisions; health issues and political changes got in his way, but Max has instead found ‘Cosmos’ in the humanity itself, in “those who are guided not by borders and nationality, but by justice, solidarity and mercy”.
He emerged as a prominent anarchist and anti-fascist active in different 1990s left-wing and democratic initiatives including the ‘first generation’ of the student union Direct Action. He participated in his first student protests as a 7th grader, establishing a non-violent strike committee at his school during the 1990 Revolution on Granite, one of the events that led to grassroot democratization and Ukrainian independence, and continued his activism while he was at the Kyiv National University Faculty of Philosophy (later he also studied applied anthropology at the Sussex University).
He went on working as a journalist for BBC World Service and Ukrainian media: he was one of the co-founders of Hromadske Radio aiming to create an independent, non-governmental and non-oligarchic radio broadcasting. He wouldn’t stop campaigning for social, labor, gender and other human rights, providing solidarity and help to those in the most vulnerable and oppressed positions.
For more than two decades, he was involved in the organization of many anti-war, alter-globalization, anti-fascist protests (including the annual actions in memory of Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova murdered by Russian neo-Nazis), rallies against borders, wars of aggression, dictatorship and authoritarian laws, demos to support the marginalized, minorities, LGBTQ+, non-white people, and refugees. While covering the street protests against the 2006 G8 summit in St. Petersburg as a journalist, he was illegally arrested by the Russian police and subsequently won the case in the ECtHR that was an important milestone in defending the freedoms of press and of assembly.
Together with the late Dmytro Hroysman they founded the human rights center Social Action. Butkevych joined a number of local agencies of international humanitarian organizations as well: he was a regional manager of public relations for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), an advisor to the Alliance for Public Health, a monitor of National Preventive Mechanism, a founding member of Human Rights Centre ZMINA, a member of board of Amnesty International, and a moderator of DocuDays UA International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival events. He’s proved to be one of the most consistent human rights defenders in Ukraine.
As a founder and co-coordinator of the No Borders Project, Maksym Butkevych and his colleagues have intervened to rescue, protect and support numerous refugees and asylum seekers from Central Asia, Belarus, Russia, Middle East, and African countries; not only those escaping the war zones but also those who would face repression or murder in case of deportation. During and after the 2013-2014 Maidan protests, Maksym and his comrades occupied the State Migration Service to enforce humanizing reforms of this agency; joining the civic advisory council of this body he promoted the abolition of racist practices like ethnic profiling by the police.
They also lent their helping hand to the Ukrainian IDPs after the war broke out in 2014. The No Borders Project joined other initiatives in establishing the Resource Center for IDPs Coalition. Maksym and his comrades’ project helped hundreds of people on all the stages of their struggle and never abandoned refugees as a real ally from the standpoint of solidarity and mutual aid and not out of paternalism and as gatekeepers as many NGOs act.
Maksym Butkevych has been working on combating racism, xenophobia, far-right extremism, and different forms of discrimination in Ukrainian society, as well as providing numerous trainings to raise public and media awareness to eradicate hate speech and police violence. His lectures on the language of discrimination and hateful propaganda discourses manifesting throughout time and space, from the Rwandan genocide to contemporary Kremlin narratives or Western right-wing populists, taught his journalist colleagues to prevent hate speech in their own work. Thus, his consistent beliefs in non-violence, tolerance and equality, his inclusive and anti-colonial approaches were passed along to many other people.
He’s critical of human rights violations, especially those on the side of the state, regardless of the place where they’re committed, be it Ukraine or abroad. Guided by his organizational motto “No one is illegal” he did a lot to prevent deportation of foreign asylum seekers from Ukraine and, via his activity in the Solidarity Committee, to free the Crimean activists like filmmaker Oleh Sentsov and antifa activist Oleksandr Kolchenko prosecuted on political trials and held in Russian prisons after the annexation of the peninsula. His friends describe Maksym’s imaginative anarchist approach as a rare gem in the ocean of over-regulated activism. Being radical, open and humble at the same time, he never put other people in shadow and never stopped learning from them.
Remaining a staunch anti-war internationalist and antimilitarist critical to militarization of other spheres of life beyond the army itself, Max felt he had to join the Ukrainian resistance to the ongoing aggression of Russian imperialism. He volunteered at the military recruitment office on the day of the full-scale invasion and soon was enlisted in the Ukrainian Army to “protect all that matters”: the people of our country and our freedoms.
The general public and his relatives learnt about his and his comrades-in-arms captivity from the videos and articles of Russian propaganda, that, in an Orwellian manner, cynically labeled this humanist and anti-fascist person “a propagandist and a nationalist battalion commander”. Russian bots went on demonizing him in social media by conflating Maksym (who staunchly advocated inclusive and solidary policies towards civilians in the war-torn Eastern Ukraine and IDPs) with his namesake, right-wing journalist Bohdan Butkevych (no relation) who indeed made derogatory remarks about the Donbas population.
Upon more than 8 months of Butkevych’s captivity, the Investigative Committee of Russia, one of Putin’s notorious tools to suppress dissent, and an unrecognized judiciary in Russian-controlled Ukrainian territories have conducted their farce trial on the basis of obviously fabricated charges of “abusing the civilian population and using prohibited methods in an armed conflict”, without even providing him an independent lawyer. Willfully depriving a prisoner of war of the right to a fair and regular trial already constitutes a war crime itself, and the footage shows Maksym’s visibly exhausted and tormented face. As pointed out by Amnesty International, these show trials are nothing but an act of ruthless retribution against Ukrainian prisoners of war.
Furthermore, investigative journalists from “Graty” found confirmation that, at least until 14 June, Butkevych could not be in Sievierodonetsk and take part in hostilities in the Luhansk region as their unit was then still deployed in the Kyiv region. Nevertheless, the “investigation” claimed that Butkevych allegedly fired from a grenade launcher at the entrance of a Sievierodonetsk residential building on 4 June, 2022, i.e. when Maksym and his unit weren’t even in the Donbas.
It’s high time to disseminate show global solidarity with Maksym Butkevych as well as with millions of other people in Ukraine affected by Russia’s brutal imperialist aggression as Maksym’s case is another dramatic embodiment of the invaders’ lawlessness.