24.11.2014 | Halya Coynash

Execution for ‘Spying’, ‘Desertion’ or for a Ukrainian Flag?


Kremlin-backed militants from the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’ are set to establish ‘military courts’ with the power to impose the death penalty.  There is a long list of offences to be tried in such a way, including insubordination, ‘state treason’, ‘spying’ and ‘desertion’, as well as looting, robbery, etc.  The scope is thus enormous, but there is no indication if any member of such ‘courts’ will have legal training. 

Nor, although the report states that other crimes and offences are included “in accordance with current legislation”, is there any way of checking what these ‘laws’ may be. The same official site of the ‘republic’s government’ offers only three possibilities: ‘laws’ prohibiting “unlawful” expropriation of property and vehicles; “propaganda of fascism” and gambling.  With respect to ‘expropriation’, since the militants have been openly engaged in such activities since mid-April, there is presumably some hidden meaning to the term ‘unlawful’.  The ‘law’ banning ‘propaganda of fascism’ looks copy-pasted from the Russian equivalent which was probably sensible since any scrutiny would make it clear how many of the militants and those in Russia involved in training them have the far-right and neo-Nazi leanings the document purports to be prohibiting.

The ‘military courts’ are to function ‘in regions under martial law, as well as in areas of military conflict’.   When the plans were originally announced back in August, Alexander Karaman, one of the Russians  brought in from the pro-Russian breakaway Transnistria claimed that more humane measures would be introduced ‘after the war’.  Whether they would have more relation to rule of law seems doubtful, but that remains purely theoretical.  For the moment there are to be ‘military courts’ made up of one ‘judge’ and two ‘lay judges’ chosen from among the soldiers.  Those holding rank higher than commander of a regiment get to be ‘tried’ by three ‘court judges’, called a ‘tribunal’.

Each death sentence requires the head of the ‘tribunal’ and the ‘prosecutor general’ to be informed in writing and they in turn “must immediately organize a check as to whether the sentence is lawful and well-founded.  Only death sentences appear to be appealable, with others coming into force and implemented from when they are announced.

Which ‘crimes and offences’ carry the death penalty cannot be checked given the elusive nature of the militants’ ‘current legislation’.  At the grotesque ‘people’s court’ staged by militants from the equally self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk people’s republic’, allegations by one individual that the ‘defendant’ had raped her were enough for the ‘people’s court’ to sentence the man to death through a show of hands.

There are very strong grounds for believing that ‘desertion’, as well as what the militants deem to be ‘spying’ or ‘state treason’ would also be capital offences.   Svitlana Matushko, for example,  recounts how she was held in a death row cell for seven days on the basis of an absurd denunciation and a search of her home which found Ukrainian flags and symbols.  She believes that they are trying to intimidate people loyal to Ukraine and frighten them into leaving, so as to bring in people loyal to Russia.  She describes those she was held in captivity with, these including former police and SBU [security service] officers; drug dealers; a young guy whose name was found in the youth branch of Yulya Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party and his girlfriend.  One student from Donetsk National University was there because he asked leading militant Pavel Gubarev at a public meeting how the militants are planning to pay pensions and public sector salaries, and how they’re planning to organize heating for the winter.  He was ‘arrested’ after the press conference. 

Although she herself was not physically ill-treated, she knows of others so badly beaten that they pleaded to be shot immediately to escape the torture.  All of this is similar to accounts given by other people held in captivity.  The man who interrogated Matushko identified himself as from Mariupol, however she says that the other militants, judging by their pronunciation, were Russian. 

Matushko tells of one young man who himself fought with the militants.  She says that those who want to get out try to hide their weapons and uniform and leave for other parts of Ukraine, some for Russia.  The young man was caught and taken to be shot.  He said that the person he was taken out with, was shot and killed, but that they first hit him so hard that he lost consciousness and fell, and then made one shot which only grazed his head.  He told Matushko that he had come around already in the morgue surrounded by bodies.  When everything quietened down he came out and doctors called an ambulance for him.  

Since the militants’ pseudo-elections on Nov 2, the Ukrainian government has taken a firm stand, refusing to negotiate with these so-called ‘republics’ or to continue financing the institutions that are now under their control.  The militants whom Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed Russia will not abandon are facing protests from the population and probably more ‘desertions’ and ferment within their ranks.  With rule already based on denunciations, violence, and intimidation, the military ‘three-man courts’ are another chilling reminder of the worst Soviet methods and clearly aimed at terrorising the population.  

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