Shortly before a planned prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine, a court in Kyiv has released on bail a man suspected of involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014.
A Ukrainian court on Thursday released a man on bail suspected of involvement in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014.
The news broke shortly before Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was optimistic about an impending prisoner swap with Ukraine.
Volodymyr Tsemakh worked as a former commander of Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, according to Ukraine's Security Service. The judge recommended that he is released immediately pending further investigations.
Noteably, he was one of the people identified as a possible candidate to be exchanged in the imminent Ukraine-Russia prisoner swap.
A contentious release
Tsemakh was released in spite of the international community calling for Ukraine not to allow him to travel to Russia. Dutch prosecutors fear this would mean a loss of a key witness in the investigation into Flight MH17, which was shot down en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in 2014.
The Dutch prosecutors were supported by 40 European politicans who on Wednesday wrote to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy with the same request, according to European Parliament member Kati Piri. European lawmakers described him as a "key subject" and asked that Kiev make him still available for testimony into the probe.
Despite the release, appellate court judge Yury Sliva in Kyiv cautioned him to remain available for questioning and not attempt to flee.
Tsemakh is believed to have been in charge of air defense for the separatist Donetsk People's Republic near Snizhne in eastern Ukraine when the MH17 flight was targeted, although Tsemakh's involvement has never been confirmed by Ukraine.
Will they, won't they?
There has beenuncertainty over whether the prisoner swap would go ahead, though Tsemakh was one of the prisoners specifically requested by Moscow as part of the exchange, suggesting reknewed commitment from Ukraine. A Ukrainian source close to the talks told AFP that the exchange will happen "soon," possibly this week.
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday also said that he was finalizing the much-anticipated prisoner swap.
It was thought the process had stalled amid reports that some Ukrainians have already been moved to Moscow from their prisons.
Contenders for release
The exchange could involve a large number of high-profile people, although it is not yet known exactly how many, or who exactly would be exchanged. The potential prisoners include the Russian state media journalist Kyrylo Vyshynsky, who was released last month after being in custody for more than a year, pending a trial for "high treason."
Ukraine also offered to hand Vyshynsky over to Moscow in exchange for Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, who is a prisoner in a penal colony in the Russian Arctic.
On the Russian side, possible contenders could be the 24 Ukrainian sailors captured on board three seized vessels off Crimea in November 2018.
Normalizing Russia-Ukraine relations
Putin said he hoped that this would lead to a normalization of relations between the two countries, referring to the years of fighting following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. On 17 July 2014 a missile downed the MH17 Boeing jet over the Russian-backed separatist Donetsk People's Republic, in eastern Ukraine. Evidence has pointed to Russia supplying both funds
and weapons to the rebels.
kmm/rt (Reuters, AP)