What judicial reform when it’s not Russia, but Ukraine that refuses to release an innocent life prisoner?
13 years have passed since a bomb explosion in Lviv claimed the life of a 14-year-old schoolgirl and led to the arrest and life sentence of a man whom nobody believed was guilty. We cannot bring back to life Marika Kutsinda, nor can we make up for the hell her family has been through, yet surely we owe them justice, and that does not lie in an innocent man remaining imprisoned because a ‘culprit’ needed to be produced.
It is customary, even where sentences arouse deep concern, to merely call for a judicial review, rather than bluntly saying that an innocent man was given a life sentence. In the case of Volodmyr Panasenko, there seem no grounds for such caution, nor does deference to a court ruling seem warranted. Everything about this case was wrong from the outset, and as well as all major human rights groups, Panasenko’s innocence was publicly asserted by Ukraine’s first Human Rights Ombudsperson Nina Karpachova and prominent legal experts.
The car bomb that exploded on 26 October 2006 had been planted under a car belonging to Roman Fedyshyn, a Lviv City Councillor and owner of the Shuvar market. He was unharmed, but Marika Kutsinda, who was walking past when the bomb exploded, was killed.
A month after the blast, the police had caught one person suspected of carrying out the attack, and declared another person wanted (he was arrested in 2013), as well as Oleksandr Rudy, who was suspected of being the go-between between the perpetrators and the person who had commissioned the crime.
Rudy was arrested while under treatment for alcoholism in a psychiatric clinic and signed four different ‘confessions’. He first asserted that the blast had been ordered by Fedyshyn himself to improve his political rating. When the investigator Roman Sharko told him that such a confession would not do, he named Myroslav Bokalo, the administrator of the market. This was also deemed wrong, so Rudy then asserted that the crime had been ordered by two men - Bokalo and Panasenko. The latter had created the company behind the Shuvar market together with Fedyshyn. A fourth ‘confession’ mentioned only Panasenko.
Rudy retracted his words in court, stating at both first trial, and then appeal level. that Panasenko had had nothing to do with the crime and that it had been commissioned by somebody else. He later also wrote a statement saying that he had given false testimony against Panasenko under pressure from the investigator. The pressure, he specified, consisted of threats that he would get life himself if he didn’t provide the testimony and beatings.
This was ignored by the court, under presiding judge Stanislav Holubytsky, as were other falsifications in the case. Panasenko’s lawyer Natalya Krisman believes that everything was done to put Panasenko away for life, with neither investigators nor the court even concealing their certainty that Panasenko was innocent. Somebody, however, needed to be ‘found’, and all other candidates had power and were considered untouchable.
Oleh Levytsky, a defence lawyer from the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union [UHHRU] has called the case of Panasenko by far the most shocking he has ever seen. He says that he has studied all the material of the case, and believes there were never any grounds at all for Panasenko’s arrest.
Back in 2009, Karpachova, as Ombudsperson, called for a review of Panasenko’s life sentence. This was ignored, as have been similar calls from legal experts and human rights groups. In March 2016 Independent Ukraine’s first President Leonid Kravchuk called the Panasenko case a court travesty.
In 2018, the judge who had sentenced Panasenko to life imprisonment, Stanislav Holubytsky, was appointed Supreme Court judge. This was despite a negative assessment from the Public Integrity Council which specifically noted his role in Panasenko’s imprisonment.
In an appeal to President Volodymyr Zelensky and the Verkhovna Rada, UHHRU and the Kharkiv Human Rights Group called the Panasenko case the most shocking of all judicial miscarriages. That appeal can still be endorsed here. The authors of the appeal stress that exceptional lawlessness requires extraordinary measures and call on Zelensky to ‘pardon’ 60-year-old Panasenko or on parliament to issue an individual amnesty. Obviously a proper judicial review, which would certainly be in Panasenko’s favour seems better, however best of all must be for Panasenko to finally be home with his wife and daughter, who has become a lawyer since her father’s arrest.
It is believed that the Panasenko case and other apparent miscarriages of justice have not been rectified because to do so must entail questions being asked about the ‘investigators’, prosecutors and judges involved in such cases.
The choice for Volodymyr Zelensky and his party, Servant of the People, which holds an absolute majority of seats in parliament, is very clear. Either they continue protecting those willing to imprison innocent men for their own ends, or they opt for justice here and now.