Ukrainian blogger gets long sentence for expressing contentious views
Ruslan Kotsaba, a controversial Ivano-Frankivsk journalist and blogger, has been sentenced to three and a half years’ imprisonment. The Ivano-Frankivsk City Court found the journalist, who has been in detention for 14 months guilty of obstructing the legitimate activities of the Ukrainian Armed Forces over a video in which he expressed his negative attitude to mobilization. The court did, however, acquit him of the more serious, and absurd, charge of ‘state treason’. The defence will, of course, be appealing against the conviction itself. If they do not win in Ukraine, it is highly likely they will at the European Court of Human Rights where this case is certainly headed.
The three and a half year sentence will, if not quashed at appeal, be shorter since the court ordered that the new means of calculating sentences be applied, whereby one day in pre-trial detention (where the conditions are dreadful) is counted as two days in prison.
The prosecution had asked for an incredible 13-year sentence, so the court has shown some degree of independence. Nowhere near enough, however, since the entire prosecution should have been thrown out as having no place in a democratic country. It is no accident that Kotsaba was declared the first prisoner of conscience in five years in Amnesty International’s last annual report over the fact of his detention.
Kotsaba was arrested on Feb 7, 2015 and charged with State treason (Article 111 § 1 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code) and under Article 114-1 § 1. The latter article covers espionage, although in Kotsaba’s case, he was accused – and now convicted by the first instance court - of obstructing the lawful activities of the Armed Forces and other military formations.
The charges under Article 114-1 were based solely on a video in which he opposed the mobilization drive in Ukraine, on his cooperation with Russian pro-Kremlin media and, effectively, on his expression of his views.
The six-page indictment begins with reference to the video appeal to President Petro Poroshenko entitled “I reject mobilization” which Kotsaba posted on YouTube on Jan 17. On this video he publicly called on “all adequate people” to refuse mobilization, asserting that it had been declared in breach of Ukraine’s legislation. The prosecution alleged that Kotsaba gave false information to back his claim to likely conscripts that mobilization is unlawful and that there is unwarranted fratricide in civil war in Donbas. The indictment asserted that the said video had “received a significant number of hits in the Internet and was circulated among compatriots”.
The video had, in fact, been seen by a very modest number of people until the SBU made its author well-known. As of May 12, 2016 it has now been viewed over 430 thousand times and remains freely available on YouTube. No evidence was provided during the court hearings that anybody had been influenced by the video. Yet the prosecution claimed that the video fell under Article 14 as being ‘subversive activities obstructing the armed forces”.
It should be noted that there are plenty of Ukrainians who do not dispute that Russia is the real aggressor but who believe the mobilization waves to be legally questionable given that Ukraine has not formally declared a state of war.
There were indeed no grounds for the more serious charge of state treason, and the court hearings were an embarrassment, with the only witnesses really only expressing outrage at Kotsaba’s views.
The lack of substance is seen also in the indictment which lists occasions where Kotsaba entirely legally gave interviews to Ukrainian and Russian television channels in which he spoke about his video and expressed the view that the events in eastern Ukraine constitute civil war. More details about the charges can be found here
Kotsaba’s assertions about ‘civil war’ and denial of the essentially undeniable role of Russian soldiers and mercenaries in Donbas certainly antagonized many people. So do many other views that any citizen of a democratic country must have the right to express.