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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

For Ukraine, It May Be Time To Crack Down On Draft Dodgers

Since the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, male Ukrainians aged 18 to 60 have been prohibited from traveling abroad. But some conscripts and men of draft age have found ways to leave the country, prompting discussions in Parliament on how to strengthen sanctions against draft dodgers.

Image depicting a Ukrainian soldier displaying his artistic drawings depicting life in the Ukrainian military during the war

A Ukrainian soldier Ruslan displays his artistic drawings depicting life in the Ukrainian military during the war.

Madeleine Kelly/ZUMA
Anna Steshenko

KYIV — Since the outbreak of the war, the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine has reported conscripts trying to cross the border and flee to other countries.

Some men have tried disguising themselves in women’s clothing, while others hid in car trunks. There have also been cases of people drowning in rivers while trying to cross the border. Since the beginning of the invasion in 2022, 16 drowning victims have been recovered from the Tisza River along Ukraine's border with Romania and Hungary.

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Another illegal route is by exploiting the "Shlyakh" (“Path”) system, where men register as volunteers or employees of transportation companies, leave Ukraine, and fail to return within the legally mandated 60 days — something at least 9,373 men are believed to have done.

Under existing laws, draft dodgers are liable for a fine on their return to Ukraine, but criminal charges can only be brought against those who evade military service by fleeing abroad after receiving a military summons.

The Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs, Ihor Klymenko, has said a law will be drafted to reinforce sanctions against illegal fugitives and conscripts who have left Ukraine after the start of the war.

But similar initiatives have already been introduced in Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, and none have been deliberated upon so far. Members of Parliament have voiced skepticism regarding the likelihood of passing such legislation.

Ihor Klymenko told Ukrainian publication LB.ua that the motivation behind the draft bill is "The public’s demand for justice, particularly concerning those who illegally left the country to evade mobilization."

The minister added there is no current criminal liability for illegally crossing the border.

No retroactivity

"There is criminal liability for forging documents used during the border crossing, bribery, and evasion of mobilization,” he said, noting that men who leave Ukraine after receiving a signed summons may face imprisonment for three to five years.

“But illegal border crossing is subject to a fine in most cases,” Klymenko says. “That’s what we want to tackle. But I repeat, we’re only discussing ideas. There is no definitive solution on the table yet.”

The minister added that if the law is passed, it will not have retroactive effect.

"Of course, it will adhere to the constitutional norm,” he says. “Even noble intentions should not serve as a basis for violating the law. At the same time, we will continue to look for legal means of influence on those who have already illegally crossed the border and left the country during a time of hardship."

Klymenko considers that obtaining information about the illegal fugitives would not be difficult.

"Some of them will eventually return to Ukraine; some will turn to Ukrainian embassies in other countries for new documents or assistance,” he says. “Then the authorities can consider verifying whether there were legitimate grounds for their departure abroad."

He continued by saying that during the development of the bill, Ukraine will study practices in other countries.

"For example, Israel has a fairly strict approach to monitoring conscripts," he says.

Image depicting a Ukrainian soldier walks past a shelling scene in Kherson, Khersonska Oblast.\u200b

June 16, 2023, Kherson, Ukraine: A Ukrainian soldier walks past a shelling scene in Kherson, Khersonska Oblast.

Alex Chan/ZUMA

Not the first attempt

Members of the Verkhovna Rada have, however, voiced doubts regarding the introduction of sanctions against illegal fugitives.

Klymenko's initiative is not the first attempt at strengthening legal penalties for conscripts who left Ukraine since the start of the war, or even compelling their return.

Andrii Osadchuk, First Deputy Chairman of the Committee on Law Enforcement Activities and a member of the Holos (“Voice”) political party, recalled that the Ukrainian parliament registered a bill last year, No. 7171, which proposed criminal liability for illegal border crossing during wartime, with an exemption for those who returned within 10 days. However, since criminal law does not have retroactive effect, this mechanism would not have prompted the fugitives to return. Consequently, the bill was withdrawn.

Social media or Interpol?

Additionally, in April of last year, lawmakers registered draft law No. 7268, which proposed amending the Criminal Code of Ukraine to include an article on criminal liability for conscripts who illegally cross the border during a state or war. The draft law prescribed penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment for a period of three to five years.

In Feb. 2023, the draft law was included in the session agenda, but the relevant committee has still not reported on it.

In April 2022, the authors of another draft law, No. 7265, proposed establishing criminal liability for not returning to Ukraine after the declaration of a state of war, with a potential prison sentence of five to 10 years. However, on Sept. 6, 2022, the draft was dropped.

In my opinion, it's all just a stunt.

Osadchuk also emphasizes that the Ministry of Internal Affairs has so far not approached the committee regarding the preparation of a new draft law.

Another member of the committee, a representative of the Holos party, Oleksandra Ustinova, is skeptical about the likelihood of any such initiative being adopted.

“First of all, there is no mechanism to identify those who illegally left the country if they have documents indicating their presence in Ukraine,” she says. “Will they be tracked through social media and Instagram photos? Should an international search be launched? It is unrealistic. Or should requests be made through Interpol? I doubt that such a draft law will materialize. Everyone on the committee was surprised by the minister's statement. In my opinion, it's all just a stunt."

image showing a man who fills in the papers at one of the Administrative Service Centres as he wishes to join the Offensive Guard, Zaporizhzhia, southeastern Ukraine.

February 10, 2023, Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine: A man fills in the papers at one of the Administrative Service Centres as he wishes to join the Offensive Guard, Zaporizhzhia, southeastern Ukraine.

Dmytro Smolienko/ZUMA

Accountability matters

According to lawyer Yuriy Bauman, criminal liability for individuals who left the country during a state of war and failed to return without valid justification should be strengthened.

"As of now, Ukrainian legislation only fines individuals for illegal border crossing. This fine can only be imposed if the person returns,” Bauman says. “But if the person does not return to Ukraine, it is practically impossible to hold them accountable.”

Bauman suggests utilizing existing sanction mechanisms for the offenders, noting for example that there is a system of accountability in place if divorcees have not paid alimony. They are restricted from traveling abroad, driving vehicles, using firearms, and so on.

"In my opinion, we should implement a similar system of rights limitations for individuals who left the country during a state of war under certain conditions and failed to return," he said. "I understand that there will be strong objections against such restrictions, citing the European Court of Human Rights and saying it constitutes human rights violations. But those who work and pay taxes in Ukraine, and those who have lost almost everything in this war, should be involved in such a discussion. I believe that the voices of the latter will be more convincing."

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Migrant Lives

A Train Journey With Bengal Migrants Looking For A Living Far Away

Finding a seat on the Karmabhoomi Express is close to impossible. A closer look at why so many migrant workers travel on it, and out of Bengal, offers a grim picture.

image of a train

The Karmabhoomi Express runs from Kamakhya to Mumbai in a 3 day journey.

India Rail Info
Joydeep Sarkar

WEST BENGAL — Welcome aboard the 22512 Kamakhya-LTT Karmabhoomi Express — a metaphor, if any, of the acuteness of Bengal’s unemployment problem.

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