Who is Gonzalo Lira, the American Citizen Imprisoned by the Ukrainian Secret Service?

Update: Gonzalo Lira died in Ukrainian custody in January, 2024.

In the United States of America, the fundamental right of freedom of speech is not only protected by its constitution but ingrained in the values it holds as a society. Yet around the rest of the world, the matter of free speech looks vastly different. Even in the United States, a line is drawn upon which speech ceases to be legal. The case of Julian Assange is a prime example of the limits of free speech as defined by the government. But in many countries, mere speech that challenges the government’s official narrative will warrant arrest, detainment, or worse. The nation of Ukraine is one such country, where speech that could be considered pro-Russian is labeled as “information terrorism,” to be equated to other forms of terrorism as explicitly stated by Ukraine’s Center for Countering Disinformation (CCD), which has posted a blacklist of 70 so-called “info terrorists.” Even the speaking of Russian in general is increasingly constricted and criminalized in aspects of Ukrainian society. The presence of the Russian language in cultural aspects such as books, songs, performances, and even public speaking was banned in the capital of Kyiv. The use not only of Russian but also Romanian and Hungarian was banned in all education past primary school. As such, a kindergarten teacher was recently fined for giving a lesson in Russian. But far worse is the detainment of people the Kyiv government deems to have been spreading Russian propaganda. One such man is an American citizen named Gonzalo Lira, who has been detained for over 3 months and is facing 5-8 years in prison for several YouTube videos in which he harshly criticized the Kyiv government as well its action surrounding the Ukraine War.

In the past, the detainment of an American citizen for speech would have brought sweeping condemnations and international pressure from the American media, government, and allies. Yet this time the United States has found itself stuck between a rock and a hard place. It has decided to put all its eggs in one basket that is Ukraine, with a steady stream of weapons and money to serve as the lifeline in Ukraine’s war against Russia. The United States has deliberately sabotaged significant opportunities to negotiate for peace, as shown when they sent then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to torpedo the negotiations successfully occurring in the Spring of 2022. While officials such as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have admitted that the real goal of the war is to “see Russia weakened,” it’s important to note that the mainstream narrative has once again centered around fighting against tyranny to preserve democracy and freedom. So when the supposed beacon of freedom arrests an American citizen for speech, what is to be the reaction of the United States government? Well, when such questions are asked by reporters, State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller opts to say only that the State Department is aware of the situation, that it supports the exercise of free speech, and he’ll “leave it at that.” The vague response suggests that the United States has decided to deflect and ignore taking a position on the incident in general, so as to avoid having to unravel the narrative they rely on. 

Lira was arrested by the Ukrainian Secret Service (SBU) on May 1st, 2023. He is awaiting trial for unlawful behavior under article 436-2 of Ukraine’s criminal code, which is defined as “justification, recognition as legitimate, denial of the armed aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, glorification of its participants.” However, this is not the first time Lira has been detained by the SBU. He was taken in for questioning in April of 2022 but released only 5 days later. Yet Lira did not cease to post content highly critical of the Ukrainian government, as well as defending Russia’s actions in Ukraine. As such, heavily armed SBU agents appeared at his door in Kharkiv, Ukraine. The agents raided his home and claimed to find incriminating data on his cellphone computer, and then took him away. He was then sent to a pre-trial detention center known in Ukraine as SIZO.

Yet on July 31, two days before his court date, Lira uploaded three videos to YouTube, each titled, “I’m About to Cross the Border.” In the videos, he clarifies that he is attempting to cross the border into Hungary with the intent of seeking asylum. He claims that he was prevented from posting bail for over nine weeks, but was finally able to post bail approximately a month before his court date. He also made the troubling claim that while in prison he was tortured, beaten, and extorted for $70,000 by his prison mates in collaboration with the prison guards and SBU. Additionally, he stresses that if convicted and sentenced to 5-8 years in a laborious Ukrainian prison, his heart condition and age will make it probable that he will die before being released. As such, he deemed fleeing to Hungary his only viable hope for freedom. At the same time as the publication of those videos, Lira posted a series of Tweets that included images of his indictment. The indictment accuses Lira of disseminating content that includes “justification, recognition as legitimate, denial of the armed aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine, glorification of its participants.” As evidence, it lists several of Lira’s YouTube videos as well as his Telegram channel. It is perhaps for this reason that Lira made the claim that, essentially, he has already been found guilty. In the scenario that he did not make it across the border, he urged anyone watching to “raise a ruckus.”

 Reports suggest that he never made it across the border and was once again snatched up by the SBU. Very little is known about Lira’s current situation, and Ukrainian officials have provided little to no information on the status of his case. Although born in the United States, Lira is also a dual citizen of Chile. Yet he claims he has received little help from either the American or Chilean embassies. The longstanding precedence of nations supporting their journalists arrested or tried in foreign countries has seemingly crumbled.

The values of freedom of speech so prized by Western nations now appear hollow and without substantial backing. Yet the deterioration of Western values is only facilitated by the silence of its citizens. No longer can people rely on media or politicians to be brave enough to stand up for moral causes. As such, it is now the responsibility of the people to stay informed, hold those in power accountable, and most importantly, to not remain silent. 

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