Free Nellie Shtepa!

Dear Readers:

I have been out of touch with whatever happened to Nellie (Nelya) Shtepa, until I saw this piece today.  Wouldn’t you know it, this much-suffering woman is still rotting away in a Ukrainian prison.

Nellie needs to be set free!

People who care about human rights need to start agitating for her release.  And I’m not kidding around about this, even though in the past there were some elements of humor in her story.  But it’s definitely not funny any more.  Nellie has suffered enough.  According to the PolitNavigator story, for a full month (in the middle of winter 2015) she was kept in an unheated prison cell with temps averaging 3 degrees Celsius.  (For American readers, that’s around 37 degrees Fahrenheit.)

After complaining to Human Rights officials, Nellie’s prison conditions were somewhat ameliorated, but the fact remains:  She has been rotting in prison for 19 months now, her case has never been brought to trial, and her main witness for the Defense was murdered.   This definitely hurt her case, which is actually a very strong one and should acquit her handily in a fair trial.  Where are the bleeding-heart human rights experts from the West?  Why don’t they speak up for her?

Nellie’s Story

If you recall, Nellie Igorevna Shtepa was the Mayor of the Ukrainian town of Slaviansk.  She was a completely ordinary woman and politician, leading a completely ordinary life centering around her family and her job.  And then stuff happened.  After the Maidan coup and the outbreak of civil war in the Ukraine, Separatists occupied Slaviansk — it is a highly strategic location in the Donbass — and took over the local government.  The Separatists were led by the colorful figure of Igor Girkin aka Strelkov, an eccentric Russian officer whose main military experience seems to have been performing in various battle reenactments.  Unless you believe the other theory, that he is undercover Russian special ops.  Whatever…

Igor Strelkov as a Roman officer

Now, the Ukrainian civil war was no reenactment, it was the real deal.  Well, they say that war breeds strange fellows, and Girkin is a strange fellow indeed.

But Nellie’s story more concerns one of Girkin’s henchmen, a husky fellow named Vyacheslav Ponomarev.  Ponomarev is of the pure Russian type of male and is said to be a native of he Slaviansk area.  Not much is known about him or his murky past.  When Donbass seceded from the Ukraine, Ponomarev just appeared out of nowhere and declared himself People’s Mayor of Slaviansk.  In a way, he was sort of like a Ukrainian version of Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean, who shows up out of nowhere and becomes Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer.  Except Valjean was a humanitarian and philanthropist, whereas Ponomarev has the reputation of being a bit of a bully.  In fact, one of his other former female hostages, Irma Krat, is said to have bonded, Stockholm-style, with her ruggedly handsome captor, and even slipped him love notes from under her dungeon-cell door.  But this is all rumor and gossip.

Ladies….! I am your new Mayor!

Be that as it may, Ponomarev took Nellie’s job and placed Baby in the corner.  Nellie disappeared for a few days.  (Hint:  She was in a prison cell.)  Nellie claims now that Ponomarev beat her up until she agreed to sign a letter of resignation.  This is plausible, since Nellie then emerged in public again, singing a different tune, how great the Separatists are.  Those of us who were closely following the Slaviansk story at the time, noticed these comings and goings.  In fact the entire Slaviansk saga sometimes resembled a Hollywood soap opera.  Or perhaps a cross between “The Blacklist” and “Fawlty Towers”.  With people coming and going, up and down the Castrovalva-type stairways, in the ill-constructed Police Administration building where Girkin-Ponomarev ruled, in their office suite above the prison cells.

Now, if this were a remake of Fawlty Towers, then most certainly Girkin would be Basil, and Nellie would be Sybil.

Viacheslav Ponomarev

Later, things get even stranger. Girkin in turn arrests Ponomarev, accuses him of committing some rather serious crimes.  Ponomarev cools his heals in one of his own cells.  Maybe even next door to his true love, Irma Krat.

With everybody jailing everybody, and a mass outbreak of Stockholm Syndrome, it is hard to know where people’s actual loyalties lie.  But the proof is in the pudding, as they say.  When Ukrainian army and neo-Nazi militias retook Slaviansk on 5 July 2014, Ponomarev (freed from his cell) fled with his former captor Girkin.  Nellie stayed behind.  This proves that she felt no actual loyalty to Girkin or Ponomarev any of those people.  Her true loyalty was to the Ukrainian central government.  She chose to risk her luck with the Ukrainians.

And this proved to be a mistake for her, in retrospect, because they treated her worse than did the Separatists.  As Sybil Fawlty would say:  “I know… I know….”

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