Fatal attack on the Vilshany Roma community reaches the court, but not as a hate crime
The Vilshany Town Mayor, Andriy Lytvynov, and his father, Oleksiy Lytvynov, a Kharkiv Regional Council deputy, are on trial over an attack on members of the Vilshany Roma community and the killing of its informal leader, 49-year-old Mykola Kaslytsky, who was shot in the back on 16 May 2017. While it is certainly good that a trial is underway over the attack, there are serious concerns about the case. These include the fact that a man who was at the very least actively involved in the attack, and who may have fired the fatal short, has been removed from the case, and the prosecution are also failing to recognize all the hallmarks of a hate crime.
As reported, it seemed clear from the outset that this had not been a brawl, but a deliberate attack on Roma residents of Vilshany (Olshany in Russian), a small town / urban settlement around 30 kilometres from Kharkiv. Mykola Kaslytsky had come to discuss the harassment of his son the day before, and although he and his companions were clearly aware of possible danger, they came unarmed, with only spanners and similar car instruments to defend themselves. This was in marked contrast to the other side who used at least one lethal firearm, guns with rubber bullets and the services of around 20 paid thugs, with the latter beginning the attack after Oleksiy Lytvynov nodded to them.
Anna Sokolova has been following this extremely slow trial in the Kharkiv District Court of the Kharkiv oblast. During a hearing on 24 July, Mykola Kaslytsky’s son, Ruslan, who in 2017 was just 17, recounted that on 14 May 2017, he was in the centre of Vilshany with some friends. Andriy Lytvynov, who “was drunk and wanted entertainment”, drove up to them, opened the car window, and said “O, Gypsies” and at least one further insulting comment. Ruslan turned around and asked him why he was saying that, at which point Lytvynov got out of the car, grabbed the lad and threatened to strangle him, butting him in the head. According to Ruslan, he responded by slapping Lytvynov. The latter warned that if he hit him again “there’ll be war”.
Andriy Lytvyn may have been drunk, but, at 30, he was considerably older that Ruslan. He was also much more powerful, having probably gained the post of town mayor after his father went on to be elected to the regional council.
After hearing of this treatment of his son, Mykola Kaslytsky phoned the local police officer, who told him to come in the next morning. Kaslytsky arrived, planning to lodge a formal report about the incident, but unfortunately was dissuaded by the police officer who suggested that he instead ring Lytvynov Junior. The latter claimed not to have known that Ruslan was Kaslytsky’s son, but immediately threatened to shoot his legs if he caught him. Kaslytsky appears to have been quite conciliatory, simply stressing that his son was a young kid and that if there were any complaints about Ruslan, they should address them to him, as his father.
It seems to have been at that point that Lytvynov suggested ‘a meeting’.
Kaslytsky initially arrived in the morning of 16 May at the town council building to speak with Andriy Lytvynov. He found the latter standing by the building, with his father, Oleksiy, Yevhen Kryvoruckho, a local businessman and family friend, and some other men he didn’t know.
At this point, it was the father Oleksiy Lytvynov who took an aggressive tone and demanded, in insulting language, that he call “other Gypsies”, or he would come himself and get them evicted from their homes.
One of the Lytvynovs’ two lawyers expressed surprise in court that the threat to evict them had been taken seriously.
“You live in your own homes, How can they evict you?”
“They can”, Ruslan Kaslytsky replied briefly. This is the point to remember, with it probably also explaining the police officer’s reluctance to receive a formal complaint about any of the Lytvynovs. Unfortunately, many such local figures wield virtually feudal levels of power.
Kaslytsky called his brother, who now lives in a neighbouring town but is from Vilshany, and other members of the community. As mentioned, they were ‘armed’ only with spanners and similar items.
Ruslan Kaslytsky was present and says that there were around 25 men counting the Lytvynovs. He did not see the latter holding any weapons, but is convinced that Kryvoruchko and several other men were armed.
Although Ruslan speaks of his father and uncle having held “negotiations”, these appear to have lasted a minute or so, and involved Oleksiy Lytvynov abusing them, and then nodding in the direction of a jeep from which men in masks and camouflage leapt out and began both beating the Roma, and shooting at them. They began running, but there was one loud shot and a little later, Ruslan heard his mother shouting that they had killed Kaslytsky.
Kaslytsky was not killed outright, but lost consciousness. His wife shouted to Oleksiy Lytvynov to save her husband and Lytvynov did drive him to the hospital – in the boot of his car. After the car took Kaslytsky away, the assailants continued shooting at the Roma, injuring ten others, although not fatally. Three people needed to be hospitalized. Typically, it was the medical staff who reported the attack to the police, with the latter trying to claim that this was conflict that had occurred “on the basis of longstanding domestic misunderstanding”.
It is of enormous concern that no hate crime charges (under Article 161 of Ukraine’s Criminal Code) were brought since the chief players made no attempt to conceal their racism. On the day of the attack, Sokolova reported that Oleksiy Lytvynov had denied any involvement, although his face showed that he had been in a fight, and he also made accusations about the local Roma community (around 100 people, of a population in Vilshany of over 8,000, using offensive words and claiming that they were involved in crime and that there was constant conflict because of them. Local residents who spoke with journalists that day denied this, saying that the Roma did not stand out.
Criminal investigations were initiated, after Kaslytsky’s death, under the articles on hooliganism with the use of a weapon and murder. 21 men were initially taken to the police station, including Lytvynov.
Had it not been for Roma and other human rights groups, and particularly the role of
Vadim Matyushenko, the head of the Romen Kharkiv National-Cultural Society, it seems likely that any criminal proceedings would have been quietly shelved. Certainly the head of the nearby prosecutor’s office arrived at the police station and took Oleksiy Lytvynov away without the police interfering. When Matyushenko asked, he was told that Lytvynov was being taken to a SIZO [pre-trial detention centre], although he was actually driven home, given the chance to change and to destroy the evidence on the clothes that he had been wearing. He was only detained the following day, as was Kryvoruchko and one other man (by mistake), with the charges only of hooliganism.
Matyushenko has spoken with all the people who were there and stresses that Kryvoruchko did not try to conceal his identity and, according to witnesses, he was shooting.
Kryvoruchko and Lytvynov were soon placed only under night-time house arrest, although there were very strong grounds for believing, as the prosecutor suggested, that Lytvynov would put pressure on witnesses. Sokolova notes that during the detention hearing on 19 May, judge Natalya Kononikhina essentially put the needed words (about his supposedly bad state of health) into Lytvynov’s mouth.
Lytvynov was, however, detained in June 2017 for a month, with this then extended for a further two months. He remains to this day a member of the Kharkiv Regional Council.
Kryvoruchko was quietly removed from the case altogether, despite the obvious evidence against him.
Lawyer Stanislav Myronenko, who is representing the Kaslytsky family, says that they managed to get an investigation initiated under Article 161 (a racially-motivated hate crime), however they have essentially been fighting decisions to terminate this ever since.
Human rights groups called from the beginning for the investigation to be taken out of the Kharkiv oblast, and this does seem to have happened. The crime was reclassified from hooliganism to mass riots with grave consequences and murder with the aim of concealing another crime, with both Lytvynovs facing the mass riots charges, and Oleksiy Lytvynov also accused of murder.
Myronchenko explains that, according to the prosecution, Kaslytsky was murdered because he had information about who the hired mercenaries were, who their leader was, and because he was in the epicentre of the events and that this would stop him speaking out “during the investigation”.
The first problem with this version is surely that the only reason for the investigation was, in fact, Kaslytsky’s death. It is clear that, until Matyushenko became involved, the local Roma people felt much too vulnerable to formally protest.
The other issue is that there really is a far more compelling motive. Myronchenko says that they are convinced that this was a racially motivated hate crime. Kaslytsky as the leader of the community, was simply hated more than the others.
It is difficult not to suspect that the implausible charge is also aimed at making a guilty verdict that much less likely. Concentration on the Lytvynovs alone seems suspect. Matyushenko notes that the termination of the charges against Kryvoruchko ignores the fact that a forensic analysis of his clothing found powder from a gunshot.
There has also been no effort to prosecute the Vilshany Council staff who removed bullets from the scene of the crime before the police arrived. The employees were questioned but no charges were laid.
Matyushenko says that they have established that around 20 men – those in masks and special gear, were a group of paid thugs or mercenaries, employed to take part in such attacks. He says that they work out in the same sports club as people from the prosecutor’s office, and there is a connection between them. This may well be the reason why the individuals in question have allegedly not been identified.
A year after the attack, on 24 May 2018, Andriy Mukha, a lawyer representing the victims was himself attacked in his office by five men, including Ilhar Hasanov, an employee of the Derhachi Prosecutor’s Office. Mukha says that the men burst into his office, began beating and kicking him around the head and chest, and threatened to kill him if he didn’t stop representing “those Gypsies”. According to Matyushenko, who saw Mukha shortly after the attack, they also demanded that “he forget” about the fact that Derhachi District prosecutor Volodymyr Lisotsky had allowed Oleksiy Lytvynov to go home and destroy vital evidence before arresting him. Matyushenko is understandably angry that there has been no investigation into the attack on Mukha.
This was a shocking attack on members of a Roma community living peacefully in Vilshany. There is very strong evidence that this was organized by powerful local politicians and a prominent businessman, and that council employees and local prosecutors have helped to conceal proof. The case needs attention also because of the apparent attempts to protect a key suspect and denial that an unprovoked attack on Roma was a hate crime. There is also very clearly no hurry to even hear this trial to the end, with the next hearing scheduled for well over a month away, on 24 September.