MOSCOW – The first foreigner tried in Ukraine for fighting on behalf of pro-Russian rebels in the Donbass conflict was among those liberated in a prisoner swap between Kiev and the breakaway Luhansk republic.
Rafael Lusvarghi, a Hungarian-Brazilian national, came to be known as the Che of the Donbass due to his physical resemblance to Che Guevara, with whom he also shared anti-capitalist beliefs.
“Right now he is in the hospital. It seems he’s fine but we are carrying out some tests to see his exact state of health,” Olga Kobtseva, human affairs negotiator for the de facto government in Luhansk, told Efe.
The 35-year-old was released on Sunday and taken to the self-declared Luhansk People’s Republic, one of the two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine alongside Donetsk.
Sunday’s was the largest prisoner swap in the conflict since 2017.
The Brazilian arrived in Luhansk with 63 other prisoners sent back from Kiev, which included several volunteer fighters from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.
“Why did we include him in the list for the exchange? Because he voluntarily came to help our people against Ukrainian aggression,” Kobtseva said.
He left Brazil after pictures of his arrest during anti-government protests at the time of the 2014 World Cup made headline news and decided to go volunteer in the Donbass.
He had prior military experience having joined the French Foreign Legion in 2002 and later serving with military police in Sao Paulo.
“He speaks decent Russian,” his state-provided defense lawyer, Ivan Meleshko, said.
The Brazilian had studied medicine in the Russian city of Kursk.
According to some accounts, he actively participated in the fighting against Ukrainian forces in one of the bloodiest battles in the war, which took place in Debaltsevo in 2015 and preceded the signing of the fragile Minsk Protocol.
He was injured while fighting around Donetsk airport that same year and after a time in hospital returned to Brazil.
Ukrainian security forces noticed him when they saw a photograph of Igor Strelkov, a Russian officer who led the uprising against central Ukraine powers in 2014, decorating the Brazilian for his services.
“It’s true. I decorated him, and another Brazilian, for his courage on the front. It’s the only time I saw him,” Strelkov told Efe on Tuesday.
The FSB (formerly KGB) colonel said he had “great respect” for those who come to fight for pro-Russian militias in the Donbass.
“Just by coming from so far he has already earned a medal.”
In 2017, Ukraine’s secret services lured him back with a false job offer and authorities arrested him off the plane.
He was later sentenced to 13 years in jail for terrorist activities against Ukraine.
By the end of the year, he was free again, released due to procedural irregularities, although he was unable to leave the country without a passport.
Lacking money, he sought refuge at an orthodox monastery on the outskirts of Kiev but was later seized by a group of Ukrainian ultra-nationalists while he was allegedly travelling to the Brazilian embassy.
The young far-right group members, who have links to the Azov Battalion militias fighting against pro-Russian rebels in the east, paraded him through the streets of Ukraine.
Lusvarghi was beaten and forced to publicly ask Russian President Vladimir Putin to exchange him for Ukrainian soldiers being held by separatists.
He was then marched to the secret service headquarters, where the nationalists demanded explanations as to why the Brazilian was released.
He was sentenced again in May to 13 years in jail, this time for belonging to a banned paramilitary organization.
“If doctors give him the all-clear, he can travel wherever he wants. It’s entirely up to him,” Kobtseva said.
For now, she said his battlemates were looking forward to seeing him.