Protestant sentenced to prison in occupied Ukraine; arrested priest disappears

By Jack Bethel |
Russia’s Federal Security Service headquarters at Lubyanka Square, Moscow.
Russia’s Federal Security Service headquarters at Lubyanka Square, Moscow. | (NVO, Creative Commons)

A Ukrainian Protestant in her early 50s has received a seven-year jail term for remarks at a home prayer meeting in a Russian-occupied city, while a Ukrainian Orthodox Church priest has disappeared following his arrest, according to Forum 18.

After making the alleged remarks at a home in occupied Melitopol in July 2023, the unnamed woman was arrested in early 2024. The Zaporizhzhya Region Investigative Committee refused to tell rights group Forum 18 if Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) had secretly recorded the Protestant meeting.  

After Russian occupation forces arrested her, she was charged under a law against “Public dissemination, under the guise of credible statements, of knowingly false information about the use of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation” when conducted “for reasons of political, ideological, racial, national or religious hatred or enmity, or for reasons of hatred or enmity against any social group” (Russian Criminal Code Article 207.3, Part 2, Paragraph D). 

Punishments range from a large fine to up to 10 years of prison.

Her trial apparently took place at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhya Regional Court, with the date of the verdict – and her location – unknown, according to Forum 18. Whether she has been able to file an appeal was also unknown.

The arrest earlier this year happened before the disappearance of the Rev. Feognost Pushkov, 44, from his home in Prosyanoe village, which he shared with his elderly and disabled mother Taisiya, in Russian-occupied Luhansk Region. The priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is linked to the Moscow Patriarchate, serves the parish of St. Nikolai in Kuryachivka village, within Starobilsk District of Ukraine’s Luhansk Region.

Forum 18 reported that no one has heard of Pushkov’s whereabouts since June 20, when police summoned the priest, who suffers from stress-induced high blood pressure, and he posted this message on Telegram:

“I’m in an ambulance. They want to lock me up at the police. I am between life and death. Help me, everyone who can. My mother won’t survive this.”

Forum 18 reported that Pushkov likely drew the ire of authorities for posting a YouTube video on May 12, 2022 giving his views on patriotism based on Christian principles against those of Russian Orthodox priests supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Forum 18 stated that Russia enforcing its laws on occupied Ukrainian territory was illegal under Article 64 of the Geneva Convention. The watchdog stated that Russia had imposed punishments for Ukrainians under its Criminal and Administrative Codes since late 2022 within the occupied areas, including Zaporizhzhia, where the Protestant woman was prosecuted.

Jailed Ukrainians are sent to serve sentences in Russia, which also contravenes the Geneva Convention, according to Forum 18. It noted that the convention’s Article 76 states, “Protected persons accused of offenses shall be detained in the occupied country, and if convicted they shall serve their sentences therein.”

No official answered phone calls at the Zaporizhzhya Regional Court when Forum 18 called to ask about the welfare of the Protestant woman on June 18 and on July 1. A judge on June 27 refused to respond to the rights group asking questions about the case. 

The occupation forces’ Zaporizhzhya Region Investigative Committee also refused to discuss the reported sentence given to the Protestant woman. A duty official in Melitopol, refusing to give his name, told Forum 18 on July 1, “We don’t have the authority to discuss any criminal cases by phone.”

An official told Forum 18 that the woman’s case had been handed to the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhya Regional Court, and that all questions should be addressed to the court.