Primetime Justice: The Zaporizhya Church Bombing
The EU-Ukraine Summit on 25 February is set to raise hard-hitting questions about selective justice in Ukraine. The issue, however, cannot only revolve around unacceptable prosecutions of political opponents. Worrying degradation of the judicial and law enforcement systems is increasingly demonstrated in cases apparently far removed from politics.
One such case is that of three young men charged in connection with a bomb in a Zaporizhya Church on 28 July 2010. It is known in Ukraine as the “case of the sacristans” and urgently needs to be raised at the EU-Ukraine Summit precisely because its outcome is widely seen as being quite unrelated to the guilt or otherwise of the defendants.
The bomb exploded in the Svyato-Pokrovsk Church in Zaporizhya the day after President Yanukovych signed the gravely flawed Law on the Judicial System and Status of Judges. No cause and effect need be sought, but a link is certainly evident in the disastrous consequences of both events for rule of law in Ukraine.
The day after the bomb which injured nine people, with an elderly nun later dying of her injuries, President Yanukovych appeared on television sternly ordering the heads of all enforcement bodies to find the culprits immediately. He was duly assured that the crime would be solved within the week.
And solved, we were to believe, it was, even earlier than promised. Before the week was out the then Head of the Police, Anatoly Mohylyov had announced on TV that the crime had been cracked and the culprits arrested.
The rest – the investigation and trial – were mere formalities.
Tragically, the only formality, unless we intervene now, may be the verdict, since all else has aroused grave doubts over the last two and a half years.
Three young men – two former sacristans of the Church and the elder brother of one of them – remain in custody two and a half years on.
The alleged motive of “revenge” because Anton K. had lost his job as sacristan is especially stretched in this case. Since Anton, then 26, has quite obvious learning difficulties, the investigators tried to attribute the main practical role in this supposed revenge-spurred crime to his brother. The latter, already in his thirties, lived separately from Anton and his mother, had both a professional and sporting career to lose. The other sacristan has very poor health and there was no obvious reason for him to have become involved in any such crime.
Likely motives, unrelated to the three defendants, include conflict over church land involving the supermarket chain Amstor. These were consistently ignored by the investigators although journalist investigations have found compelling grounds for at least examining such versions.
The only “evidence” comes from the young men’s confessions. The problem here is not only that all have retracted these, saying that they were given under duress. There are also quite simply too many confessions, with most being mutually exclusive.
Two expert assessments were sought from fully authorized institutes in Luhansk and Donetsk. Both found that all three defendants had given testimony under serious psychological pressure. Presiding Judge Minasov then simply ordered a third assessment. This emerged in September 2012 and found, not unexpectedly, though certainly inexplicably, that there had been no psychological pressure.
Then in December, more than two years after charges were brought, the prosecution appeared with an amended indictment. This removed some of the especially glaring discrepancies and, most importantly, the charges which related to a time period for which all three defendants have alibis.
After two years of trying to break the alibi, the prosecution simply removed it, and the judge did not demur. The judge’s position has in general aroused concern. Given the retraction of all confessions, made without the accused men’s choice of lawyers present, as well as the findings of two psychological assessments, it is absolutely clear that the defendants now need lawyers whom they trust. Judge Minasov had no hesitation in taking a four month break in hearings over the summer, yet in January 2013 removed Anton’s defence lawyer from the case when the latter insisted on taking an already paid for holiday abroad.
It is no accident that according to a survey carried out in Zaporizhya, a vast majority (88.2%) do not believe that the men are guilty. The tragedy for the young men, their families and, in fact, for all Ukrainians is that it remains difficult to believe they can be acquitted without intervention from above. Attention at the EU-Ukraine Summit is therefore vital.