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30.10.2017 | Halya Coynash

Luhansk militants sentence 2 young football fans to 17 & 13 years for ’spying for Ukraine’

Vlad Ovcharenko (left) Artem Akhmerov, the Ukrainian flag 'selfie'.png
   

The Zarya Ultras Football Club have confirmed earlier reports that the two young football fans seized by militants from the self-proclaimed ‘Luhansk people’s republic’ [LPR] in October 2016 have been ‘sentenced’ to 17 and 13 years maximum security imprisonment.  Vladyslav [Vlad] Ovcharenko was just 20 when taken prisoner, Artem Akhmerov – 19.  They had carried out a protest action in which they burned the ‘LPR flag’, and Ovcharenko had also posted photos of himself with a Ukrainian flag and expressed criticism of ‘LPR’ to a German journalist.  The militants accused both young men of ‘spying for Ukraine’, with Ovcharenko receiving the longer, 17-year, sentence, Akhmerov – 13 years. 

Information remains scant, and there is no official confirmation, but this is almost always the case.  Journalist Roman Bochkala, earlier reported only Ovcharenko’s sentence, saying that he had been phoned by the young man’s relatives.  Bochkala called  Ovcharenko a true hero and said that he had not renounced his pro-Ukrainian stand even under torture.

The fact that torture is applied to extract ‘confessions’ has long been clear.  The Kremlin-backed militants have largely followed the lead taken by Russia’s FSB [security service] in producing videos on which men who often look beaten up or under some kind of drugs recite what they have clearly been told to say.  The accounts of how they ‘spied’ and who was in charge are normally highly implausible.

It was, however, noticeable that there were no videos of Ovcharenko. It is possibly no coincidence that the news of these ‘sentences’ first emerged just days before November 4, which in Russia and in occupied parts of Ukraine is marked as (Russia’s) ‘National Unity Day’. 

It was on the eve of this day in 2016 that the militants announced the ‘arrest’ of Ovcharenko, and Akhmerov, both of whom are members of Zarya Ultras.  The latter has now issued a statement and appeal to members of football organizations throughout the world. 

They write that “when the enemy came into their city, the guys burned the enemy’s flat.  The occupiers caught our friends and sentenced them according to the laws of a non-existent state.”  

They appeal to “members of football movements all over the world, all those who have defended their flags and burned the flags of the enemy”.   Help them to circulate information and attract the attention of the international community to the fate of Vlad Ovcharenko and Artem Akhmerov “using all permitted and prohibited methods”.

The term ‘prohibited means’ in areas under militant control can apply to protests with a flag and talking openly to foreign journalists.  As well as likely involvement in the flag burning, Ovcharenko was known for the photos he posted in late August, 2016 with a flag of Ukraine – an act of courage in areas controlled by Kremlin-backed militants.  He had also spoken that summer with Julian Röpcke, a correspondent from Germany’s Bild newspaper and had not hidden his opposition to the so-called ‘LNR’. 

Ovcharenko and Akhmerov disappeared on Oct 10, 2016.  That evening 15 armed men, supposedly from the ‘LPR security service’ turned up at Ovcharenko’s home and carried out a search lasting around 3 hours.  They found nothing ‘prohibited’, but took his mother’s computer away.  Ovcharenko’s parents went to the ‘security service’ headquarters the following day.  The militants initially denied any involvement, but finally admitted that both young men had been detained.  The militants later said that they could face ‘prison sentences’ for what they called spying and treason.

On November 5, 2016 most Russian media reported the supposedly uncovering of ‘an underground radical neo-Nazi group’ in Luhansk, with all of them quoting the ‘LPR Ministry of State Security’. 

This so-called ministry announced that they had uncovered a group of football fans from the football club ‘Zarya’ ‘Ultras Chorno-Bili’ and claimed that a “radical neo-Nazi group, an underground division of the Azov Battalion” had been created in Luhansk.  Ovcharenko and Axmerov were supposed to have been the leaders and were charged under the so-called LPR criminal code with ‘state treason in the form of espionage’.

They were alleged to have been recruited by a Ukrainian military intelligence officer with the code name ‘Big and Mean’.  The ‘investigators’ had supposedly uncovered the transfer of information constituting a state secret, as well as possession of symbols of the Azov Battalion, Right Sector as well as of the football club, and “circulation of neo-Nazi literature and leaflets with calls to overturn the constitutional structure of the republic.  It was alleged that their activities had been financed by the Ukrainian security service and Ukrainian far-right organizations.”

The report ended with claims even more out of Stalinist times.  It said that a check  ends by saying that they are carrying out a check as to whether members of the group were involved in “directing artillery fire on Luhansk in 2015; in the mass killings on Maidan in Kyiv, in the Odesa Trade Union House fire and in provocation and attacks on activists during the referendum for LPR independence”.   Leonid Pasechnyk, referred to as the head of this ‘ministry’ asserted in his turn that the young men “were engaged in subversive activities”, “incited inter-ethnic enmity and provoke mass anti-social manifestations and riots”.  He spoke of up to 32 members of this supposed group.

The LNR website showed ‘confessions’ from Akhmerov, as well as testimony from two other young people, one supposedly the girlfriend of one of the arrested men.  She asserted that they had wanted to earn money, and mentioned – as something she allegedly disapproved of – the one act which Ovcharenko is known to have been involved in, namely the selfies with the Ukrainian flag and a sign saying ‘I love Luhansk’. 

The sister of another man abducted in ‘LPR’, Roman Sahaidak, has said that lawyers turn away as soon as they learn that a person has been ‘arrested’ by the so-called ‘ministry’.  There is nothing at all to suggest that Ovcharenko and Akhmerov received a fair trial.

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