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21.04.2017 | Halya Coynash

Russian FSB resorts to flagrant falsification to jail Ukrainian activist in Crimea

Balukh in court
   

Well-known Russian lawyer Dmitry Dinze has warned a Crimean court that even under Russian legislation it faces criminal liability for imprisoning people on the basis of overtly rigged evidence.  The warning was issued with good cause shortly after Dinze took up the defence of Volodymyr Balukh, a Ukrainian activist in Russian-occupied Crimea arrested days after he hung up a plaque honouring the slain victims of Maidan.  Dinze earlier acknowledged, when representing Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, that the defence has very limited scope in Russia’s politically-motivated prosecutions of Ukrainians.  It can, nonetheless, help to highlight the flagrant violations of their clients’ rights, and there are certainly multiple infringements in this new ineptly fabricated case.

Balukh was arrested on Dec 8, 2016 after 90 bullets and several trotyl explosive devices were allegedly ‘found’ in his attic.  He had no record of violence and the constant searches and harassment he had faced since Russia’s invasion of Crimea for his openly pro-Ukrainian position made it inconceivable that he could have held anything illegal in his home.  This was one of the reasons why the Memorial Human Rights Centre needed little time to declare the 46-year-old Crimean farmer a political prisoner

Another factor for human rights groups has been the multitude of irregularities in proceedings, with many of these revealed during interrogation of prosecution witnesses at the hearings on April 4 and 7.  The trial, as reported, has begun with startling haste, and is being heard in the Razdolne District Court under Russian occupation, with the judge – Maria Bedritskaya. 

Yevgeny Bobrov, the criminal investigations officer who supposedly found ammunition and who undoubtedly removed the Ukrainian flag which has been flying above Balukh’s home since Euromaidan was questioned first on April 4.    

Bobrov was unable to explain his role and legal status during the search. He had not been on duty that day, and he could not name the individuals who had instructed him to be present or their position in the law enforcement bodies. 

It was established also that Bobrov had removed the Ukrainian flag from Balukh’s home.  He was unable to give any sensible answer as to what threat the flag had posed.  He said that an FSB officer had told him to remove it but was, yet again, unable to name this officer. 

Olha Skrypnyk, Coordinator of the Crimean Human Rights Group, notes that there were overt falsifications from the outset.  The search was called an ‘inspection’, and carried out with gross infringements.  Balukh was locked in a room to keep him out of the way, as was his wife.  She confirmed at the first hearing on March 16 that no less than 16 people had taken part in the search, and had wandered around their home without either her or her husband.

At some point, these individuals went up onto the roof and removed the flag, before the ammunition was suddenly ‘discovered’ in the attic.

Dinze and Balukh’s Crimean lawyer Taras Omelchenko have set out all these falsifications on 10 pages.  They presented them on April 7 as clear grounds for releasing Balukh from custody. Dinze reminded the court that it is a criminal offence to knowingly use falsified evidence in order to deprive somebody of their liberty. 

Judge Bedritskaya rejected the application, but did agree to order expert assessments.  She could hardly do otherwise when it transpired that not one had been carried out of the ammunitions, of possible fingerprints, etc. 

Previous dodgy court proceedings against Balukh were probably initiated by the local police.  This time, Skrypnyk says, it is clearly the FSB who want Balukh’s imprisonment, yet are sending the police to carry it out for them.  The latter, she stresses, had no lawful grounds for carrying out any search, let alone one undertaken with such irregularities.

Bobrov appeared in court for the first time on April 4, however two other Razdolne police officers were questioned earlier and stated that the FSB had initiated the search and drawn up the protocols for it.   Alexandra Krylenkova reported that the first officer was asked during the first hearing why, during the search, he had ‘guarded’ Balukh, thus preventing the latter from following the ‘search’.  He claimed that this was because “a person in such a state is in stress and could jump from the window”.   

Balukh turned 46 in custody on Feb 8.  There are concerns for his health, and his lawyer has previously said he saw signs that Balukh had been beaten.

As mentioned, the ‘inspection’ of Balukh’s home and his arrest came just over a week after he nailed a plaque to his home, renaming it No. 18 “Heroes of Nebesna Sotnya St’ (after the over 100 slain Maidan activists).  There had been demands from the head of the local council for the sign to be removed which Balukh had ignored. 

Balukh’s first encounter with the FSB was on April 30, 2015.  Two men, one from the FSB, appeared while he was helping his mother and demanded he go with them.  He demanded a warrant, and having ascertained that the men had also turned up at his home and carried out a search, he stayed with a friend for two weeks.  The FSB used the time to harass his mother, carry out searches of both homes and rip down the Ukrainian flag.

They claimed to be looking for a stolen box from a tractor and that he had been in a café in Razdolne, drunk, and offered to sell the box to a stranger, giving his full name and address.  The story was particularly absurd since Balukh actually owns two such tractors.  They were later to abandon the tractor prosecution, though the harassment continued.

The second visitation was on Nov 14, 2015, early in the morning.  This was also claimed to be in connection with a theft, with the officers using exactly the same story about a supposed drunken offer made in a café. 

Having found nothing at all incriminating, they opted for Article 319 of the Criminal Code – ‘insulting a police officer’, for which he was sentenced to 320 hours’ compulsory labour on Feb 5, 2016 for this alleged ‘public insult’.  The conviction was absurd enough to be revoked at appeal level, however this was clearly not the result required, and in June 2016 a second court passed exactly the same sentence.

Balukh is now facing a sentence of up to 4 years’ imprisonment.  He is one of the prisoners whose release the European Parliament demanded in their March 16 resolution.  

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