Prison sentence for Ukrainian flag in Russian occupied Crimea revoked
The High Court in Russian-occupied Crimea has balked at the scale of falsification in the conviction and 3.7 year sentence passed on Ukrainian activist Volodymyr Balukh and ordered a retrial. 46-year-old Balukh, however, remains in custody ten months after his arrest on openly fabricated charges which prompted prominent human rights groups to ask European countries to impose sanctions on all those involved.
During the appeal hearing on October 2, the court quashed the sentence passed on August 4, 2017 by ‘judge’ Maria Bedritskaya from the Razdolne District Court and sent the ‘case’ back for retrial under a new judge. It is worth noting that at the very first hearing, the defence warned Bedritskaya that any judge faces criminal liability for convicting a person on the basis of manifestly falsified evidence.
Olga Dinze, who is representing Balukh, says that the defence will now await the case to reach the first instance court in order to apply for it to be returned to the de facto prosecutor. After this, she explains, the prosecutor should return the case to the detective inquiry unit in order to remove the glaring procedural irregularities. The defence notes, however, that it is impossible to eliminate the irregularities given that the criminal proceedings were initiated unlawfully – before receipt of the operational material which was allegedly the reason for initiating them.
Balukh was arrested on Dec 8, 2016 after 90 bullets and several trotyl explosive devices were purportedly ‘found’ in his attic. He had faced constant searches, harassment and several administrative prosecutions since Russia’s invasion of Crimea for his openly pro-Ukrainian position, and had been in conflict with the occupation authorities a week before his arrest after he hung up a plaque honouring the slain victims of Maidan. All of this made it inconceivable that he would have held anything illegal in his home. It was the grotesque implausibility of the charges, as well as the procedural irregularities, that prompted the renowned Memorial Human Rights Centre to declare the Crimean farmer a political prisoner within a month of his arrest.
The list of irregularities in this case is huge, with the de facto judge implicated in some of them. She appeared to have been told that she could not take her holidays until she convicted Balukh, and she insisted on continuing the hearings despite serious concern about the activist’s state of health. Bedritskaya consistently resisted any attempt to probe the cause of flagrant discrepancies and accepted the excuses made for the continuing failure by the FSB officers involved in the case to appear for questioning.
There were even divergent figures as to the number of bullets allegedly ‘found’ in Balukh’s attic and no attempt was made to establish how it was that the ammunition in question was on the official register of weapons and ammunition in Barnaul, the Altai region of the Russian Federation, and was produced back in 1989.
The defence has asked the investigator why he did not establish how these Barnaul bullets came to be lying in readiness for an FSB search in Balukh’s attic. He claimed that he had had no grounds for doubting the work of the operational group or suspecting that the items had been planted.
This is despite not only the strange origin of the ammunition in question, but also the fact that the forensic assessment found no traces to suggest that Balukh had been in contact with the items allegedly found in his home.
Yevgeny Bobrov, the criminal investigations officer who is supposed to have found the ammunition, proved unable in court 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 Bobrov who also removed the Ukrainian flag which had been flying over Balukh’s home since Euromaidan.
He could not give any sensible reason as to why he had removed the flag and what threat it had posed. He said that an FSB officer had told him to remove it but was, yet again, unable to name this officer.
Two Razdolne police officers, when questioned, also stated that the FSB had initiated the search and drawn up the protocols for it.
Even the search in December was claimed to be an ‘inspection’ and carried out with appalling 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.