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02.09.2020 | Halya Coynash
The right to a fair trial

Vital evidence proves that Ukrainian soldier Markiv had nothing to do with Italian journalist’s death

Vitaliy Markiv in the Pavia court in Italy Photo Natalya Kudryk, Radio Svoboda
   

Investigative experiments and forensic tests in Ukraine have demonstrated the lack of any grounds for the conviction in Italy and horrific 24-year sentence of Ukrainian National Guard soldier Vitaliy Markiv over the 2014 death of Italian photojournalist Andrea Rocchelli (and his Russian interpreter, Andrei Mironov) in war-torn Donbas.  The results, presented at a press conference on 31 August, undermine the prosecution’s case and raise important questions about why fundamental investigative activities were not carried out and vital witnesses not questioned.  It is frustrating that it took Ukraine’s Interior Ministry so long to undertake the work, as Markiv has now been in Italian custody for over three years, but the material has all been provided to the Italian court which is due to consider Markiv’s appeal against the sentence on 29 September.   

31-year-old Andrea Rocchelli was a freelance photojournalist who had come to Donbas to cover the military conflict, with Mironov as his interpreter.  Neither they, nor their French colleague William Roguelon, were wearing anything to identify them as journalists when their taxi came under fire at a railway crossing near Sloviansk, on 24 May 2014. 

Ukrainian National Guard soldier Vitaliy Markiv was at the time of the tragedy (around 18.00) positioned with other Ukrainian soldiers on Mount Karachun.  Without ever having visited the scene of the tragedy, the Italian prosecutor first asserted that Markiv had himself killed Rocchelli, but was forced to withdraw this charge since Markiv had not had any access to the mortar shells that killed the men.  He was instead accused of having provided information to the Ukrainian Army about the men’s whereabouts, in the knowledge that they were journalists.

Forensic tests have now established that there was a distance of 1,760 metres between Markiv’s position and the place where the journalists were killed.  For this reason, and because of train carriages standing at the railway crossing and the trees in the way, there was simply no possibility that Markiv could have seen the taxi that the men had been travelling in or the men themselves,, let alone determined that they were journalists.  The prosecution, if it doubts these results, can come and repeat the experiment themselves.  It remains unclear why they did not do so after their arrest of Markiv on 30 June 2017.  It is equally baffling that they did not question certain critical witnesses to the events.   

The Head of the National Police’s Central Investigation Department, Maxim Tsutskiridze explained at the press conference that they had interviewed a local resident who confirmed that the shooting had begun from a militant stronghold on the territory of the Zeus Ceramics factory, near to where the journalists stopped.

The investigators had also spoken to a witness, identified only as Hlushkov, who had taken the wounded Roguelon from the Zeus Ceramics factory to Sloviansk.  Hlushkov recounted that, as he drove away with the French journalist, the car came under fire from machine guns.  The investigators examined Hlushkov’s car and found damage caused by a machine gun (with a 5,45 mm. calibre) and say that it was fired from a small distance (which would indicate that it was the Russian / pro-Russian militants who had taken over the factory.

It must be said that much of this evidence is not strictly new, with at least one of the witnesses first tracked down by the producers of an important documentary film ‘The Wrong Place’.  The film is directed by Cristiano Tinazzi, a journalist with experience of war zones, and is being produced in cooperation with two Italian colleagues, and a Ukrainian journalist from Hromadske.ua.  Tinazzi has said that their aim was to establish the truth about what had happened to their colleagues.  This was both out of respect for the men who died, and to prevent a scapegoat being found to take the blame.  Tinazzi expressed regret that the film could not be entirely balanced since the prosecution had refused to give their comments.  It was Tinazzi who first interviewed the taxi driver who was driving Rocchelli and Mironov that day (somebody Koshman), as well as a young man whose photo Rocchelli had taken just before he was killed.

The authors of the film also consulted with professional military experts who provided technical details about the weapons, including that used by Markiv.  These experts reached the same conclusions as the Ukrainian investigators, namely that, from where Markiv was positioned, he could not have seen people at a distance of over one and a half kilometres, and his rifle had not had an optical enlarger.

The full version of the Wrong Place is to be released this autumn, however a 30-minute technical version, regarding weapons, visibility and with comments from Italian experts, was presented in the Italian Senate on 1 September.  The accompanying press conference was supported by the Italian Federation of Human Rights, whose President, Antonio Stango earlier explained that his organization was committed to the principles of a law-based state, and that they believed that the Markiv trial had been heavily influenced by Russian propaganda.  Stango stressed that the film was not in any way trying to put pressure on the court, but was seeking to present the facts in greater detail and distinguish them from the fakes that the case material contained.  A lot of the material presented as ‘from open sources’ in fact originated from the Kremlin-funded ‘Russia Today’.  This channel, together with other Russian state-controlled media, were involved in coordinated propaganda and disinformation about the war in Ukraine.  According to one former employee, the staff were told in February 2014 that the 1970s and 80s had been child’s play in comparison with the cold war now unfolding, and that if they didn’t want to take part, they should find another job away from information channels.

The ruling, finding Markiv guilty, cited an article from the pro-militant, pro-Kremlin ‘Russkaya Vesna’.  The latter produced a faked document claiming to be from the Ukrainian authorities ordering Markiv’s fellow soldiers to testify in his favour.  Incredibly, even the prosecutor  Andrea Zanoncelli, admitted that “it was never clear how genuine it was” but added it to the case material “so that the court could evaluate it.”  He did not explain how the court was supposed to evaluate something which even the prosecution considered to be dodgy.

It was, in fact, because of the warmongering disinformation about Ukraine and Russian aggression from precisely such Russian-funded outlets, that in March 2015 EU heads of state created a task force to combat such propaganda, as well as the important EU vs Disinfo website. 

Instead of combating deliberate disinformation, the Italian prosecutor included it in the charges against Markiv.

It would seem from the court proceedings and from the justification for the verdict that neither the prosecution, nor the court  really acknowledged the critical fact that Rocchelli and Mironov had been in a war zone.  The prosecution claimed that Rocchelli’s death had been murder, and that those who killed him and Mironov had known them to be journalists.  This was clearly accepted by the jury and is reflected in the verdict.

The above-mentioned testimony demonstrating that there had been shooting from both militants and the Ukrainian Army was therefore of critical importance.  Without even trying to find such witnesses, the prosecution instead denied that there had been shooting from the Russian / pro-Russian militant side.  As well as witness testimony and, now, the forensic tests from Hlushkov’s car, this also contradicts Mironov’s own last words.  He can be heard of the video saying: “Somebody is sitting nearby and shooting and there are also mortar guns here”. 

Roguelon’s testimony was also contradictory, but indirectly confirms the fact of shelling from both sides.  While back in 2014, he had acknowledged that he did not know where the initial gunfire had come from, during the trial of Markiv, in 2018, he asserted that the shelling had come from up the hill, and therefore from the Ukrainian army position.  He did, however, state that while he was in the trench, some people came down (who must have been the militants).  He shouted ‘journalists’ and they didn’t shoot.  He also spoke of the car that he was driven away in having been shot at, again something that confirms that there were two sides shooting.  

There is also the testimony of a civilian, Tolstyy, who came up to the journalists at the crossing and shouted that he had heard a sniper shot – something he could not have heard from a distance of nearly two kilometres.  

The only other evidence used to back the charges against Markiv came from a dangerously free interpretation of a telephone conversation reported by Italian journalist Ilaria Morani which the prosecution very strangely presented as being Markiv’s ‘admission of guilt’.

Markiv’s dual Ukrainian and Italian citizenship seems worryingly relevant in this case for two reasons. It made it extremely easy to arrest him in June 2017 as he arrived in Italy to visit his mother, and his fluency in Italian meant that he had spoken with certain journalists back in May 2014, after Rocchelli and Mironov were killed.  Prosecutor  Zanoncelli appears to have begun considering him as a suspect after coming upon an article published in Corriere della Sera on 25 May, 2014 in which Morani recounted a phone conversation between her colleague and Markiv.  Morani misleadingly called Markiv “a captain”, and said that he had been “on the tower at that time coordinating the defence of the city.” This mistake, in crediting a soldier who obeys orders with the power to issue them was later repeated in the court judgement.  It remains unclear why the conversation should have even been seen as incriminating, since Markiv seemed to merely be warning the person that journalists should steer clear of an area which was dangerous.  The words that were supposed to incriminate, in Morani’s rendition, based on what she had been told, were as follows:

"Normally we don’t shoot in the direction of the city and on civilians, but as soon as we see a movement we load the heavy artillery. This happened with the car of the two journalists and the interpreter. We shoot from here within a kilometre and a half. Here there is no precise front, it is not a war like Libya. There are actions scattered throughout the city, we await only the green light for the final attack ".

Had the prosecution not tried so hard to deny that there was a war underway and that there was shooting from below, the jury would surely not have seriously expected soldiers to wait to be shot and not themselves open fire. 

Instead the court claimed that Markiv was carrying out an evidently unlawful order which violates the Fourth Geneva Convention regarding the protection of civilians during conflict.   The Ukrainian soldiers’ ‘attack’ was asserted to have occurred without any provocation or attack from the enemy and that it was “aimed against journalists exercising their right to gather information about the conflict”

During the press conference in Kyiv, Tsutskiridze stated that the investigators cannot rule out the possibility that the Russian and pro-Russian militants had deliberately lured Rocchelli, Mironov and Roguelon and provoked the Ukrainian soldiers into returning fire.  He explained that a handwritten letter had been found on Mironov, signed by Stella Khorosheva, suggesting that they might be able to get a photo with ‘Strelkov’ (nom de guerre for Igor Girkin, the ‘former’ Russian military intelligence officer whose seizure of Sloviansk, together with around 50 well-trained and armed men, marked the beginning of hostilities).  Khorosheva was, at the time, one of the public faces of the militants, but is now resident in Italy and is, seemingly, trying to be elected to a local council.  The Ukrainian investigators have received no response from the Italian prosecutor regarding their wish to question Khorosheva.   There is nothing to indicate that they would get a truthful answer if there had been a set-up, but It should be said that there are strong grounds for believing that a Russian state TV journalist, Anatoly Klyan, was effectively sent to his death essentially for propaganda purposes.   

Rocchelli, Mironov and Klyan were three of the journalists killed in Donbas during the first months of the military conflict.  There were also two others - journalist Igor Kornelyuk and sound engineer Anton Voloshin from the Russian state-owned TV channel Rossiya 24.  Moscow immediately claimed that the men had been killed as journalists (although they were not wearing anything that could have identified them, and they were killed in a war zone.

Russia then used the capture by Luhansk militants of Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko as an opportunity to stage an extraordinary show trial in which they claimed that Savchenko had (with a serious arm injury) climbed a television tower and spotted the journalists some kilometres away, and informed the Ukrainian Army who shot them. 

Savchenko was sentenced to 22 years’, but then later released in exchange for two Russian military intelligence officers captured while killing a Ukrainian solder in the Luhansk oblast.

Her story bears a disturbing resemblance to the charges against Markiv, however there is one other critical detail, aside from the fact of her release. From the first news that Savchenko was no longer imprisoned by the Luhansk militants, but facing ‘trial’ in Russia, she was internationally recognized as a political prisoner, with the charges against her seen as absurd.

 


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